October is Health Literacy Month—and even though it is nearly over, there’s still time to think about what health literacy is and why it’s important, and maybe even take some action! A quick definition: health literacy is the ability to read, understand, and act on health information. Sounds simple, right? Health literacy includes not only fundamental literacy (reading, writing, speaking and numeracy) but also scientific civic and cultural literacy. (Zarcadoolas, Pleasant, and Greer).
On one end of the spectrum, think for a minute about the challenge for someone who has limited math and reading skills having to figure out how to give the right dose of over- the-counter pain medication to her child. On the other end of the spectrum, think about someone having to make decisions about cancer treatments—and how those other literacies—scientific, civic, and cultural— come into play.
Another way to think about health literacy is to think of the difference between senders and receivers of health information. The senders are experts of various kinds—medical experts like doctors, nurses and public health professionals, or employees of pharmaceutical companies, men and women with scientific knowledge, who tend to use that knowledge frequently. Receivers, the patients, are very often infrequent, non-scientific users of medical information, though they may have many other kinds of expertise. It’s pretty clear that simply handing over the information from sender to receiver isn’t very effective. The work of health literacy is to find ways to create a framework for communication between them.
How does health literacy affect us? It’s nearly Halloween, so some scary stories are in order. Think of an elderly person with impaired eyesight and perhaps diminished cognitive skills taking medications—maybe six or seven, with multiple dosing instructions, including several different times of day and warnings for taking with or without food. Or think of the young woman who said the following:
I got pregnant with my second child trying to take the [birth control] pill. I don’t think I took them right at all. A month after I started taking them I found out I was pregnant. I had to read the instructions over and over and I still took them wrong.
Or this woman, about taking her prescription correctly: When I got this pamphlet it was a lot of words-- it is a lot. I read read here and there but I didn’t understand it. Because it uses a medical language. Much of the time, I don’t understand it. And when I read it, I read it and all, but I don’t know what I read. (translated from Spanish)
The Literacy Coalition of Central Texas stepped up to address health literacy directly through its Health Literacy Initiative. Working with both “senders” and “receivers,” LCCT has developed trainings for literacy groups offering literacy programs resources and workshops to learn how to include health literacy in their curricula. Additionally, it recently partnered up with Sage Words to distribute informational flyers for health literacy month across its network of literacy providers. Along with People’s Community Clinic it has launched a health literacy action group to collaboratively address low health literacy in Central Texas. The Literacy Coalition also offers trainings for healthcare providers on health literacy and effective patient-provider communication. To learn more about the how you can get involved with health literacy or to register for an upcoming workshop, please contact Nichole Lopez-Riley at email@example.com.
By guest contributor Kath Anderson from Sage Words