The Impact of Health Literacy on Society

Health literacy is a relatively new concept that was developed in response to the healthcare industry’s realization that a large segment of the population is woefully ignorant about personal healthcare issues. An asthma study using 483 patients revealed that although two thirds of them were high school graduates, only 60% of them could read above the sixth grade level, and the low of literacy levels had a direct correlation to poor metered dose inhaler technique. For those patients reading at the third grade level, 89% incorrectly administered their medication.

Although this is one study of one specific health condition, the results led the healthcare industry to consider that health literacy might be lacking across the board. Further studies were done with patients in public hospitals, and the results mirrored those of the asthma study. One quarter of patients surveyed could not understand the basic concept of when their next appointment is scheduled, two thirds did not understand about taking medicine on an empty stomach, and 75% of patients surveyed were not able to determine if they were eligible for financial aid.

The cost of low literacy affects a society in many ways, but perhaps lack of health literacy is the most costly. When people aren’t able to make educated decisions about their healthcare, providers end up spending more on treatment due to the fact that individuals lacking health literacy tend to postpone treatment or avoid it altogether. The reasons vary; ignorance, denial, fear, lack of financial resources are commonly cited. With healthcare becoming increasingly more sophisticated and providers asking their patients to take personal responsibility for their own health, those members with less education can feel overwhelmed and confused by the information. The result is that they turn away and stop trying, rather than attempt to navigate the healthcare system.

It is important for the healthcare industry to make health literacy something that is attainable for everyone. Writing web content and literature that is easy to understand should not be interpreted as condescension to the lay person. A physician who takes the time to make sure his/her patient truly understands what is being said is not treating their patient like a child; rather, the physician is practicing high quality medical care. Health literacy strives to create a feeling of empowerment in patients along with a willingness to be an active participant in his or her healthcare. The importance of a high level of health literacy cannot be underestimated; one study showed that lack of education in men is a better predictor of advanced prostate cancer than is age or race.

Although high socioeconomic status and high levels of health literacy are directly related, health literacy problems can come from all backgrounds; it does not discriminate for race, creed, or sex. It is often difficult to tell by looking at the patient; in one survey of patients nearly two thirds admitted that they had successfully kept their lack of knowledge from their spouse.

The costs of low health literacy is staggering; estimates put additional health care costs between 32 and 58 billion dollars annually. With healthcare costs in general rising, it is important to control the factors that can be controlled, and teaching people how to understand and take control of their health care is absolutely imperative. High health literacy has significant, positive impact on lowering health care costs while improving the general health of society.

Health Literacy

The Importance of Health Literacy in Creating a Healthy World:

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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