We live in an age where health literacy is becoming increasingly intrinsic to having good health. While that may seem obvious, think back in history and consider how the lay person’s relationship to the medical field has changed. Even as recently as fifty years ago, a lay person would take his or her physician’s word as law, never thinking to disagree with his or her doctor’s assessment of a medical situation or diagnosis. Today, individuals are expected to be an integral component in their health care. One way to benchmark the potential for success of that initiative is to measure a person’s health literacy.
By definition, health literacy encompasses a broad spectrum of criteria. When one thinks of literacy in a traditional sense the term is fairly specific; either the individual can read or they can’t, and if they can read, there are varying levels of ability; but the basic concept remains fairly straightforward, and revolves around the ability to read. Health literacy is a different matter. Not only must the person be able to read the written word, but health literacy means being able to read and understand a prescription, understand a diagnosis, decipher a medical term, and most importantly, be able to be an active, effective participant in personal health care decisions that up until a few decades ago, were reserved exclusively for physicians. Furthermore, literacy and health are inextricably linked, with a direct correlation between good health and high levels of literacy.
A driving factor in the need for greater health literacy is cost. High healthcare costs affect everyone, whether insured or uninsured, by resulting in higher premiums, diminished services and higher fees for those services. Studies show that uneducated and low educated patients, clients and customers wait to seek medical treatment ranging from routine examinations to surgical procedures. Whether from ignorance, fear, or lack of resources, poor health literacy has a significant impact on individuals, and in turn the society in which they live.
Healthcare providers and organizations have made it a mandate to raise the health literacy of the populations they serve. Challenging members to take personal responsibility for their healthcare seems like passing the buck, but in reality it is creating a culture of empowerment and synergy between healthcare provider and member/patient. Costs go down and overall health improves when the individual is educated about what is going on with their body. Serious illnesses like cancers tend to have better outcomes when the patient is engaged and active in making decisions about treatment.
Healthcare literacy is for everyone, not just the erudite and wealthy. It benefits society as a whole, and it costs nothing but a minimal investment of time and the desire to learn. Today, there are many tools and resources available that make developing a good understanding of healthcare easy and fun; the Internet, 24 hour nurse advice hotlines, company websites and programs that reimburse employees for taking the initiative to develop and improve their health literacy, and educational television programs. With life spans increasing, quality of life must keep pace or the gains in years lived become meaningless. Health literacy is an effective means of accomplishing that goal.
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