Health literacy

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Contents

Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 3 June 2017

Introduction

See also Consumer health information | Information therapy | Media literacy | Multilingual resources for patients | Transliteracy for librarians

The 2012 international meeting provided the most comprehensive definition of health literacy to date. The Calgary Charter comprises health literacy practitioners and researchers who suggest the following:

"...health literacy allows the public and personnel working in all health-related contexts to find, understand, evaluate, communicate, and use information. Health literacy is the use of a wide range of skills that improve the ability of people to act on information in order to live healthier lives. These skills include reading, writing, listening, speaking, numeracy, and critical analysis, as well as communication and interaction skills. What is health literacy? NLM In Focus. April 2016.

Health literacy has generally been defined as "...the ability to understand health information, including the use of reading, writing, listening, speaking, arithmetic, and conceptual knowledge..." According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, health literacy is "...critical to Canadians’ capacity to manage their health... [and] is recognized as a determinant of health in Canada, much like education, income and culture". In a multicultural society such as Canada's, culture is a major determining factor in determining whether individuals understand the health information presented to them. In Canada, therefore, multilingual resources for patients assist in helping new Canadians understand Canada’s health care system. One way to improve communication for new citizens is to develop multilingual resources. However, there is no single source for multilingual health information for Canadian immigrants. Consequently, librarians, health professionals, and public librarians may face additional challenges in trying to assist these patrons. Other demographics to consider are different age groups such as teens and seniors, both of which present unique health concerns and computer proficiencies.

The importance of developing fluencies in health literacy is demonstrated in several clinical and patient-focused studies. Its benefits are due to patient empowerment; it helps patients help themselves, and is a critical pathway in controlling health costs. According to Rudd, 1999, "...Health literacy has a direct influence on people’s access to crucial information about their rights and health care, whether it involves following instructions for care, taking medication, comprehending disease-related information, what services/programs are available for them to access, or learning about disease prevention and health promotion ..." Every October in the United States, the focus is on health literacy month.

Definitions

  • What is health literacy? The ability to read, understand and act on health information ~ Health Canada
  • also: ... the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions' ~ Healthy People 2010
  • "Data literacy must also include the ability to do something with raw information - to process it in some way. In an era where spreadsheets help us to make the grandest of decisions, we must have basic statistical literacy and fluency in the tools that allow us to make sense out of numerical data, not just words and ideas." ~ Johnson, "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption"

Health information literacy

  • Through research and management of sources of health information, librarians and information scientists have built a rich knowledge base around information user behaviours, delivery of information services and the sources and application of evidence in health and related fields. Evidence-based practice must take account of patient preferences which has a considerable information literacy component.
  • Consequently, greater user participation in the delivery of evidence based health care is a feature of health policy and of health services development. Effective patient participation in EBHC is predicated on the supply of good quality information and on the capacity of health service users, literate in the various forms in which knowledge is transmitted, to understand, interpret and absorb information of relevance to their physical and mental well-being.
  • Health literacy is of concern to policy makers, practitioners and academics in the public health, education, communication and information management spheres. This wide range of interests, each with a different perspective, partially explains why health literacy is a difficult concept to define. While scholars in the library field have helped to increase our understanding of this concept there is still considerable scope for librarians to add clarity and rigour to aspects of the conversation around health literacy.
  • Some definitions of health literacy shifts as the focus and methods of health education change. It is clearly an aspect of health education. A minimum level of health literacy is required for the educational aspects of health promotion to be successful, but it can also be seen as outcome of health promotion activities.
  • Looking at health literacy as mainly an information presentation issue, as it often has been, risks masking the range of factors which can impede or facilitate an individual's ability or willingness to understand and use the information presented. Compliance with the instructions of the health professional is essential for a successful outcome for any intervention but well-being necessarily implies a wider understanding of personal health and empowerment of the individual user of health services. A full understanding of health literacy must look at the transfer of knowledge from several perspectives. Librarians work across all the relevant disciplines and, through their work, are well versed the social and cultural, as well as the scientific and educational, aspects of health literacy projects.

How to improve health literacy

  • At an organizational level, make health literacy programs a priority; create programs that target needs of populations you serve
  • Train health care workers about health literacy, and communication techniques that work best
  • Encourage patients to bring friends or family to appointments; when receiving important information, share your thoughts, and ideas
  • Teach patients how to ask questions. Encourage them to take notes and understand issues clearly. If they don't, tell them to ask for information; speak to a medical librarian.
  • Repeat information received from a doctor or nurse. Better yet, repeat the information in your own words. Say "...let me see if I understand what you are saying"
  • Studies show that doctors and patients have different ideas of what happened during appointments. If a doctor advises you to 'take two', it is important to know what is meant by 2. Two pills, two milligrams? Repeat back information to avoid medication errors
  • Bring your prescriptions/medicines to your visits. Ask your doctors to review your drugs and supplements, vitamins and herbals. More than one third of adults do not understand their medicines. You may discover some mistakes, such as two drugs that shouldn't be combined.
  • If you don't speak or understand English well, ask for an interpreter; if you speak some English, explain the language you prefer when making an doctor's appointment so they can prepare
  • Avoiding stigmatizing anyone with low literacy; provide easy access to health information

Health literacy initiatives

See also Multilingual resources for patients

Key health literacy websites

References

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