What is health literacy? | University of Nevada, Reno

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October is Health Literacy Month. Alexandra Watson, M.D. ’17, University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine fourth-year family medicine resident, wants to bring attention to the importance of making health information easy to understand, while finding ways to make the health care system easier to navigate.

What is health literacy and why is it important?

Health literacy is the ability of an individual to acquire and understand health information in order to make appropriate decisions about their own health and the health of others. The health care system in the U.S. is complex, and health care decisions can be exceedingly complicated.

It is important for all patients to have sufficient health literacy. Improved health literacy leads to better health outcomes! Patients with low health literacy may have difficulty following medication regimens, utilizing available health services, completing medical or insurance paperwork, and keeping up on their preventive health care. Health literacy is directly beneficial to the patient’s health.

What should be my first step toward becoming more health literate?

One of the best resources is your primary care team! Having an established relationship with a physician is one of the main avenues of obtaining information not only about your health, but about health care decisions.

Once you’ve become established with a physician, ask questions! Your doctor should be willing and able to explain all your health care options, such as medications and procedures. There are many reasons a decision may be more complicated than it appears, and having an open dialogue with your physician is the best way to obtain all the facts; they can also provide you with additional information for your specific concern.

It can sometimes feel intimidating to ask for more information, but you should understand what decisions need to be made, what the goal of the treatment is, the options available to you, and why one option is being recommended over others. Any health care provider you work with should be able to walk through all of these details with you. Always ask for more information if you are confused.

What are some other health literacy resources?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) offers more information on health literacy, including MyHealthfinder. MyHealthfinder is a free resource that recommends screening tests and vaccines based on your personal demographics, and offers health information and resources based on specific health concerns.

General internet searches can pull up a wide variety of web sites, possibly some with inaccurate information. Look for websites that use evidence-based medical information—information that comes from studies using human participants. These are best utilized once you have a particular diagnosis, medication, or health question.

What populations are at risk of low health literacy?

Older individuals, those who do not speak English as their first language, medically underserved populations, and those with a low socioeconomic status are most at risk. The DHHS has developed a National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy aimed at engaging health care providers, health care organizations, communities, and individuals in improving health literacy across the nation.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted health literacy, good and bad?

The pandemic has been good for health literacy in that all of us have been learning together. Individuals have become more aware of how medical studies are conducted, how health care workers make medical decisions (which are sometimes extremely difficult), and how to be better at discerning health news as it comes out. It has really encouraged people to ask more questions and question how health care decisions are made.

However, it is also possible to see the more uncertain side of medicine. Not all of the studies that have come out have been good, quality studies. Since COVID-19 is a completely new virus, hospitals and providers have tried some treatments that have not ended up working out in the long-term. There are also many individuals—who have no background in medicine—attempting to provide health care information. All of this can be unsettling and confusing for patients. It also shows how difficult it can be, even with years of experience, to sort through good and bad information in medicine.

How are UNR Med and University Health increasing health literacy throughout our community?

All of our University Health practices offer written information available for our patients about common conditions. UNR Med takes the issue of health literacy seriously as well, and works to educate future health care providers on the importance of health literacy for all of our patients. UNR Med also plans free events for the community, such as the Diversity Health Series and Healthy Nevada Speaker Series (which did not occur in 2020 due to the pandemic), to explore issues in medicine and public health.

Additionally, UNR Med and Dean Thomas L. Schwenk, M.D., release information regularly about what is going on with the School of Medicine and University Health. During the pandemic, this has included information about the studies the University and UNR Med are doing, and what precautions we are taking as an institution. If you’d like to receive Dr. Schwenk’s monthly newsletter, Inside Nevada Medicine, please email marketing@med.unr.edu to be added to the list.

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