Health Literacy and Health Numeracy: Making the Connection

When we think of health literacy, most times our first thoughts are around words and reading. However, health literacy involves much more than just words—what about numbers? Many healthcare extenders struggle with the question: How do you make health data accessible and actionable?

As part of our celebration of Health Literacy Month, we recently hosted a webinar that provided some thoughts around these questions. Led by Dr. Zikmund-Fisher, Ph.D., the presentation focused on this key message for healthcare providers: Start with the reason first, rather than the number.

What does this mean?

Dr. Zikmund-Fisher stressed that when it comes to explaining numbers and health data to patients, providers should always think first about what the patient specifically cares about. Start with what you are trying to teach them; think about what the patient needs in order to make an informed decision. You shouldn’t just be giving a number to give a number—it should have meaning.

A couple of examples

The following examples were shared during the webinar, and give some clarity on how healthcare extenders can handle sharing health data with patients in a way that is meaningful and actionable.

1)      Case Study: Sarah

– Type 2 diabetic

– Last Hemoglobin A1c= 9.3%

–  At A1c test between visits, result is hemoglobin A1c= 8.3%

Question: Can Sarah recognize the meaning of the 8.3%?

What the provider needs to do: Help her to recognize how significant the 1% decrease in A1c. The provider needs to draw her attention to how big a change in risk the decrease is and emphasize the positive steps she took to decrease her A1C.  While the ultimate goal may be for Sarah to get her A1C below 7%, the teachable moment needs to first focus on progress made in reaching the goal.

2)      Case Study: Benjamin

– 65 year old diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer

– Choosing between surgery, radiation, and active surveillance

– Risks of urinary problems, sexual problems, anxiety, etc.

Question: How should we present the risks to help Benjamin recognize the trade-offs?

What the provider needs to do: Make sure to help him recognize the big trade-offs. Understand that detailed numerical tables may not be the best to use in guided decision making—icons or non-numeric displays may be as effective or more effective.

Learn more

To access the full archive of, Why Do We Give Patients Numbers? Making Health Data Make Sense, visit us on SurroundHealth.

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