Can you think about a time when you:
- Were diagnosed with a health condition and needed to find a specialist or decide on a treatment plan?
- Received instructions for taking prescription medicine or performing at-home care procedures?
- Were asked questions about your personal health history or needs?
- Searched for a health topic online?
You probably said “yes” to one or more of these scenarios. And if you’ve ever felt unsure or overwhelmed in these moments, you’re not alone: Nearly 9 out of 10 adults struggle to understand and use personal and public health information, especially when it’s unfamiliar or complex.
What is health literacy, and why is it important?
Personal health literacy is your ability to find, understand, and use health information to make the best possible decisions for yourself or someone else if you are a caregiver. It involves reading, writing, math, language, and comprehension skills applied to health knowledge, such as how the body works and healthy behaviors.
Good health literacy skills are necessary for effective patient-centered care, says Summit Health physician Manuela Hamaoui, MD. “It’s imperative to be your own advocate,” she adds, meaning that you can:
- Find the health information and services you need
- Communicate effectively with providers and other health care professionals
- Understand and decide which providers, services, and treatment plans best fit your needs
- Make treatment decisions, having analyzed their benefits and risks
- Follow your treatment plan
Several factors can affect health literacy, including:
- Culture and background
- Language barriers
- Socioeconomic status
- Access to resources, including technology
- Cognitive ability and mental health
Still, when given complicated or emotionally charged information, everyone can face health literacy challenges. Misunderstanding or not knowing how to use this information can negatively impact your health. In fact, lower rates of health literacy are linked to:
- A lower likelihood of using preventive care services, such as cancer screenings and immunizations
- Difficulty managing chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure
- An increase in preventable hospital visits
- Worse health outcomes and higher costs
Advocating for yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on your own, explains Summit Health physician Chaitali Patel, MD. Providers are your health partners, she explains, staying up-to-date on medical advances to enable shared decision making and the best possible care. “We’re here to make you better,” adds Dr. Patel.
How to improve your health literacy
You can take steps to improve your health care experience. Following these steps will help you better advocate and care for both you and your loved ones.
1. Have a plan for every provider visit. Prioritize what you want to talk and learn about, says Dr. Hamaoui. “Visit times can be limited, so coming in with an agenda will maximize your time.” Take notes to review later and follow up if needed.
2. Ask questions if anything is unclear. Don’t be embarrassed to ask your provider to explain something you don’t understand. Repeat back what you hear to prevent any misunderstanding. “Our job is to provide information in a digestible way so you can make informed decisions,” says Dr. Hamaoui.
3. Request information in plain language. Ask for materials such as handouts, photos, diagrams, or videos. Dr. Patel offers to review handouts with patients and elaborate on specific points to help increase their understanding.
4. Bring a friend or family member to your visit, if possible. This person can take notes so you can concentrate on simply listening. If you’re attending a virtual visit, ask if they can join the call.
5. Tap into others’ expertise. Summit Health offers patient navigators in certain departments who can guide you through the health care system. Their services may include helping you understand your condition and treatment, coordinating care, and connecting you with supportive resources.
Dr. Hamaoui says your primary care provider can be a helpful resource if you’re receiving specialty care and have questions. For example, she will discuss test results or explain medical terminology with concerned patients to help them feel better about their condition.
6. Look for multilingual providers, if needed. Many online profiles will list the languages a provider speaks. Summit Health’s website allows you to filter providers based on the language you’d like to use. If a multilingual provider isn’t available, ask for translation services.
7. Use technology to your advantage. Your provider may offer an electronic version of your health record — via the Summit Health online portal or mobile app — that can make it easier to manage and share your health information. Some of these systems allow you to schedule appointments, review test results and provider notes, store information about your prescriptions, and communicate with providers.
8. Be a careful media consumer. There’s no shortage of health information on TV, radio, websites, and social media. However, information can be incomplete, conflicting, or inaccurate.
Drs. Patel and Hamaoui encourage vetting information you find with your provider and seeking trustworthy sources such as the National Library of Medicine or websites run by large nonprofit and professional organizations, like the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
9. Attend health education lectures. Summit Health offers a variety of in-person or online educational events covering topics that may interest you. These events are often free and led by physicians and other health care professionals.
10. Provide feedback. You may have opportunities to share your opinion on ways organizations can improve their health literacy efforts. These may include patient surveys, online feedback prompts, or focus groups. Your voice plays a valuable role in our efforts to meet patients’ needs better.
In a category that can often feel complex and difficult, Summit Health strives to guide patients to access high-quality, connected care. We support patients at every step of their care journey, connecting the dots to make it easy for them to access the primary, specialty, and urgent care they need throughout their lifetime.