A lack of health literacy can have consequences, not just on a patient’s personal health, but on the public’s health as a whole. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a clear example of how these skills have very high stakes.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ways in which low levels of health literacy—due to systemic inequities—exacerbate Health inequities experienced by people from minority and disadvantaged communities,” says Hoffman.
“For example, many people found themselves having to navigate telemedicine appointments for the first time or trying to find credible online resources to get information about COVID-19 vaccines.”
Hoffman also cites the difficulties many faced in signing up online for vaccination appointments as evidence for needing a greater understanding of telemedicine and digital health literacy.
“That was difficult, for even the most health-literate people,” Hoffman says.
From a public health perspective, reduced health literacy can lead to widespread consequences, even in non-emergency situations.
“Low health literacy is also costly for the country,” Blue says. “Because when people don’t understand health information and instructions, they are more likely to have worse health outcomes and unnecessarily use emergency room services.”
How To Improve Health Literacy
Experts agree that health literacy is vital to reducing healthcare costs and improving public health. The path to improving health literacy isn’t always straightforward, however. One basic reason for this? Sick people are, by definition, not performing at their best.
“It can be more challenging to be health literate when we are sick or in pain,” Blue explains. “So even someone who normally has a high level of health literacy may struggle at times to understand and process health information.”
The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy recommends healthcare professionals use the “Universal Precautions Approach.” This approach assumes all patients have a limited understanding of the procedures and information, requiring professionals to provide clear explanations and instructions using simplified language and videos.
“When people receive accurate, easy-to-understand information, they are better equipped to take care of their health and wellness,” Jepson says.
Hoffman believes building partnerships with existing community institutions, like libraries or faith organizations, is another effective way to promote health literacy
“We need to be teaching kids in schools, as well as making sure older adults have the tools they need to navigate our increasingly digital world,” Hoffman says.
Practical Steps To Improve Your Own Health Literacy
Community programs help improve health literacy nationally, but there are also steps you can take to make health literacy a priority.
“One of the best things to do is ask questions from trusted, reputable sources,” Hoffman says. Asking healthcare professionals questions during clinic visits is good practice in empowering yourself about your own health.
“If they don’t explain it in a way that you can understand, keep asking questions or get a second opinion, if possible,” Hoffman adds.
Blue suggests patients write down any questions or concerns you have for providers ahead of the appointment, as well as recording the appointment or taking notes so you can easily refer back to the doctor’s instructions.
“Another good strategy is to repeat all information back to your healthcare provider, in your own words, to make sure that you understand,” Blue advises.
This gives the provider an opportunity to correct any miscommunications on the spot. This isn’t the time to put up a front of false confidence—speak up if you’re not quite following what they’re saying.
In addition, if you’re feeling intimidated about a Doctor Appointment or worried you might miss something, Blue suggests bringing support.
“It is also appropriate to bring a trusted person to the appointment to listen in,” Blue says. This could be a family member or friend, a home health nurse or a patient care coordinator.