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Consumer Health

Resources to assist students, individuals and families in health matters.

What is Health Literacy?

Health literacy involves the information that people need to be able to make good decisions about health.

  • Personal health literacy is about how well a person can find and understand the health information and services that they need. It is also about using the information and services to make good health decisions.

Information provided by Medline Plus

Why is Health Literacy important?

Health literacy is important because it can affect your ability to:

  • Make good decisions about your health
  • Get the medical care you need. This includes preventative care, which is care to prevent disease.
  • Take your medicines correctly
  • Manage a disease, especially a chronic disease
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle

One thing that you can do is to make sure that you communicate well with your health care providers. If you don't understand something a provider tells you, ask them to explain it to you so that you understand. You can also ask the provider to write down their instructions.

Information provided by Medline Plus

What Factors Affect Health Literacy?

Many different factors can affect a person's health literacy, including their:

  • Knowledge of medical words
  • Understanding of how the health care system works
  • Ability to communicate with health care providers
  • Ability to find health information, which may require computer skills
  • Reading, writing, and number skills
  • Personal factors, such as age, income, education, language abilities, and culture
  • Physical or mental limitations

Many of the same people who are at risk for limited health literacy also have health disparities. Health disparities are health differences between different groups of people. These groups may be based on age, race, gender, or other factors.

Information provided by Medline Plus

How to Improve Your Health Literacy

  • Ask questions. If you don’t understand what your doctor is telling you or only understand part of it, ask questions. Studies show that many patients are embarrassed to ask questions when they’re confused by what a doctor is saying. Don’t be embarrassed! There is no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to your health. Explain to your doctor that you’re having trouble understanding and ask that the information be explained again.
  • Repeat what your doctor tells you in your own words. Your doctor may give you a lot of information in a short time. To make sure you understand, it can help to repeat what your doctor said in your own words. You can start by saying, “Let me make sure I understand. You said…” This gives your doctor a chance to clear up anything you’ve misheard or don’t understand.
  • Bring a friend or loved one with you to your appointment, if possible. If they can’t come to the appointment in person, ask your doctor if they can join you virtually by phone or a video call. Ask the person to take notes for you, just in case you miss something. If you don’t understand your friend’s notes, make a list of questions to ask your doctor at your next appointment. If your questions are more urgent, such as how to take medicine or how to care for yourself after a procedure, it makes sense to call your doctor’s office right away.
  • Ask to work with a patient navigator if one is available. A patient navigator is someone trained to help you navigate the healthcare system and coordinate your care. Besides helping you understand your healthcare, patient navigators also can help you access health services, assess your treatment options, get a referral, find a clinical trial, fill out forms, and apply for financial assistance. In many cases, a patient navigator will have more time to spend with you than your doctor does.
  • Keep a running list of questions for your doctor or patient navigator. The list can include terms you don’t understand, questions about research you saw in the news, or side effects that you’re concerned about. You can keep the list on your phone or in a notebook that you bring with you to each appointment.
  • Ask for a translator or bring one with you, if needed. If your first language is different than the one spoken where you live, you may not understand complex medical terms or instructions. Ask your doctor’s office if translation services are available. If these services aren’t available, bring someone with you who can translate for you.
  • Ask if there are hand-outs or other materials you can use to help you understand. Your doctor’s office is likely to have additional materials to help explain complicated instructions/information. Not everyone learns best by listening to someone talk. Some people learn best by looking at pictures. Other people learn best by reading the information, and still others learn best by watching a video. So ask for the information in the form that will be most useful for you.
  • Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. There are thousands of medical information websites. Sadly, not all of them are reviewed by experts, and some exist only to spread bad information and sell items that may do more harm than good. The U.S. National Institutes of Health reports that it is becoming more and more difficult for people to separate health information based on scientific research from misleading ads and gimmicks, especially online.

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