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Improving Health Literacy Improves Health Equity


With Health Literacy Month underway, opportunity abounds to evaluate the health literacy of various populations and organizations alike and to implement tactics to improve health literacy for all. Doing so has important implications for driving health equity

Updated Definition of Health Literacy 

Health literacy has two key facets: personal and organizational. Historically, personal health literacy covered a person’s ability to find and comprehend health information, while organizational health literacy rated a group’s ability to fairly support patients in obtaining and understanding material related to their health outcomes. 

In 2020, the definition expanded to include not only finding and understanding information but also one’s ability to utilize knowledge about their health. Health literacy encompasses a wide range of skills and competencies, from deciphering medication labels to comprehending health information provided by healthcare professionals to taking action to manage chronic conditions successfully. In practice, health literacy connects individuals with the healthcare system, enabling them to navigate it effectively. 

For example, people with proficient health literacy can read and understand medical instructions, prescriptions, and labels. They can also interpret health-related information, including: brochures, websites, and pamphlets. Additionally, these patients can and do ask relevant questions and communicate effectively with their healthcare providers. They can then leverage this information to make informed decisions and take action. Conversely, those with low health literacy may struggle to understand and apply health information, which can lead to a slew of negatives: potential misunderstandings, missed treatments, and poorer health outcomes.

Different Types of Health Literacy

Health literacy encompasses several components, making it a multifaceted skill. First, basic or functional health literacy refers to the fundamental reading and writing skills necessary to understand elementary health information, such as prescription labels or appointment cards. For instance, individuals with low functional health literacy may struggle to comprehend straightforward health-related texts, putting them at a significant disadvantage in managing their health.

Interactive health literacy involves more advanced communication and information processing skills. Those who are interactively health literate can extract relevant information from more complex sources, engage in effective doctor-patient communication, and navigate healthcare systems successfully. In particular, this type of health literacy proves especially vital when dealing with chronic conditions or complex treatment regimens.

Further, critical health literacy goes beyond understanding information. Those patients with this branch of health literacy can evaluate the quality and reliability of health information they find and receive. For instance, these individuals can discern between evidence-based information and misinformation, empowering them to make informed decisions about their health.

In today’s digital age, being able to access and understand health information online matters. Digital health literacy includes the ability to use digital tools, navigate websites, and evaluate online health information. With so much health-related advice and information online as well as online services, digital health literacy proves essential. 

Health Literacy’s Impact on Health Equity

Disparities in health literacy negatively influence the health outcomes of different populations. For one, health literacy affects people’s access to healthcare services. In particular, low health literacy can act as a barrier to accessing healthcare services. Individuals might struggle to navigate appointment scheduling, insurance processes, and the healthcare system’s intricacies. This can lead to delays in care – or even avoidance of necessary medical services – as well as undue financial burdens.

In addition, poor health literacy can impact adherence to medical advice. Understanding and following medical advice matters, especailly with disease prevention or managing chronic conditions. As such, those with low health literacy may misinterpret instructions for medications or lifestyle changes, leading to poor adherence and suboptimal health outcomes.

Likewise, health literacy drives informed decision-making. Those with limited health literacy might make health choices based on incomplete or inaccurate information, potentially leading to actions that are not in their best interest.

Ultimately, health literacy mirrors disparities in health outcomes, particularly among vulnerable and underserved populations. Such differences often correlate with factors such as socioeconomic status, education, and race, highlighting the need for addressing health literacy as a critical component of achieving health equity.

Address Health Literacy, Promote Equity

Given health literacy’s role in promoting health equity, action taken to improve health literacy can really move the needle toward health equity. In practice, that can look like healthcare providers using plain language and effective communication techniques to ensure those of all health literacy levels can understand their advice and instructions, including materials in the patient’s primary language. Further, health organizations can provide clear, accessible health information in various formats – including digital platforms – to cater to diverse audiences. 

In the end, recognizing and addressing the various types of health literacy can empower individuals to make informed decisions about their health and can also support organizations in improving health outcomes of their patient populations. This Health Literacy Month, let’s commit to raising awareness and promoting health literacy as a crucial component of a healthier, more equitable society.

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