October is Health Literacy Month. During October, health advocates at hospitals, health centers, libraries, social service agencies, businesses, and more work together to expand health literacy. This event was founded by Helen Osborne, M.Ed., OTR/L, in 1999. Helen has spent years working in health literacy, is the president of Health Literacy Consulting, and has written a book all about practical ways to communicate health messages. Health Literacy Month is now organized by the Institute for Healthcare Advancement (IHA).
What is health literacy?
The U.S. government has a documented definition for health literacy from the Healthy People 2030 initiative.1 It defines two uses of health literacy:
- Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
- Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
Ultimately, health literacy boils down to a few key factors:
- Can people easily understand and use health information?
- Can people make well-informed and appropriate decisions using health information?
- Do appropriate organizations help promote and improve health literacy for the public?
Health literacy is critical for individual and public health
Managing one’s health and health care isn’t easy. Understanding what is happening when you are sick or how to keep yourself healthy can be quite challenging. Increasing health literacy helps people better manage their own health and their family’s health. People can and should rely on healthcare providers and healthcare experts, but there is a significant amount of healthcare decisions that must be made by individuals including (but not limited to):
- Choosing doctors
- Knowing when to see a doctor
- Knowing when to ask for a second opinion
- Following doctor’s recommendations
- Taking medication as prescribed
- Understanding potential side effects of medications
- Practicing self-care
- Proactively incorporating healthy lifestyle activities
- Avoiding or limited unhealthy activities
People with low health literacy have increased hospitalization rates, develop more disease, and are more likely to die at a younger age.2 Low health literacy is also estimated to cost the U.S. economy over $200 billion every year.3
Improving health literacy
Healthcare decisions are collaborative and improving health literacy must also be a collaborative process. Historically, the public tended to treat health literacy as an individual burden. But health literacy is really a public mission. Government, health systems (hospitals and healthcare providers), social services, businesses, and individuals must all be involved.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has created a National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. It has created strategies for:
- Developing accessible and actionable health and safety information.
- Promoting changes in the healthcare system for better health literacy.
- Incorporating standards for health and science information in K-12 and higher education.
- Supporting local efforts for adult education.
- Increasing the usage of evidence-based health literacy practices and interventions.
Many health systems and healthcare businesses are creating training and resources to help healthcare professionals who work with the public. These materials cover how to:
- Assess a patient’s understanding of their health.
- Use communication methods that have been shown to increase information consumption.
- Use simple language and communicate as clearly as possible, minimizing misunderstanding.
- Incorporate graphics and additional resources.
- Provide information at an appropriate grade level.
Businesses can take an active role in health literacy as well! Increasing their employee’s health literacy means happier and healthier employees, which can also lower healthcare costs. How can businesses increase their employees’ health literacy?
- Understand their employee’s needs (using a SDOH assessment can be a great way to assess).
- Provide workforce training on health and wellbeing.
- Hire a chief health officer.
- Provide preventive health resources such as EAP and wellbeing solutions.
- Communicate about and encourage use of comprehensive health benefits.
Improving overall health literacy of Americans is a fruitful and rewarding goal. We can all work together to ensure that people have the knowledge and tools they need to support their health and wellbeing. To learn more about how Uprise Health is helping organizations improve critical health challenges, read through our recent access to care flipbook.