Health Literacy Happens All Around Us

This blog has been authored by guest blogger, Laura C. Wilson, MEd.


An earlier view

Years ago, when I thought about health literacy, I pictured someone reading an educational brochure to learn more about her condition and treatment. I wanted to make sure that brochure provided the key information—not too much, not too little—in a clear and actionable way. It would be written at a sixth-grade reading level and include visuals that demonstrated desired behaviors. I wouldn’t have been wrong for thinking that     this scenario epitomizes “health literacy.” It does.

A new picture emerges

But health literacy is much more than a patient reading an educational brochure. It is embedded in many of our daily decisions and actions. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to name all the places that health literacy come into play in my everyday life—which includes helping others manage their health. Here is a quick list of situations I commonly experience:

  • Talking with a family member about a recent diagnosis and sending him or her links from credible Web sites to learn more about it
  • Preparing a list of questions to ask the doctor when I accompany my older relative on an office visit
  • Reading the product label for an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine to learn how much to take and for how long it is safe to take
  • Analyzing and comparing health plan benefits, including understanding what is “in network,” which procedures are covered, which medical facilities will take my insurance, co-pay amounts for specialists, and the coverage of brand and generic medicines
  • Talking with my pharmacist about whether a new prescription is safe to take with another medicine
  • Figuring out the right dose of a liquid cold medicine when the label gives a choice to determine the dose by the weight or the age of the child
  • Completing information and consent forms at the doctor’s office
  • Filling in a pillbox for the week that holds medicines taken once daily, twice daily, and on alternating days
  • Reading a magazine article that describes my risk for developing a condition as 3 times the “average”
  • Requesting a prescription from my primary care doctor for a routine annual screening
  • Using an app track my daily food choices and exercise routine
  • Choosing lower-sodium products to support a family member who has high blood pressure
  • And even talking with the veterinarian about my cat’s blood test results and the medicine and dietary changes needed to protect his kidneys

These tasks represent health literacy skills of all kinds: reading, writing, analyzing, making calculations, managing lifestyle choices, and navigating the healthcare system. They involve family members, healthcare providers, insurance companies, and technology providers. They happen at home, in the pharmacy, at the workplace, and on the phone.

This list took only a few minutes for me to draft, and it provides me—an experienced health educator—with a new appreciation for the depth and breadth of health literacy skills needed to manage in our complex society. Take a moment and think about your life—or the lives of your patients or clients.

Where does health literacy happen for you?

For more information on health literacy, check out our online community for health professionals at:

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