Improve Your Health Literacy to Improve Your Health

Black seniors look at a tablet with daughter in middle

Have you ever had a hard time figuring out exactly what you need to do after a diagnosis? Is it difficult getting the medical information you need in the first place? Well, you are in good company.

Nearly 85% of Americans don’t have proficient health literacy, or the ability to find, understand, or use health information or services to help with medical and well-being decisions. For those who don’t speak English as a first language, it can be a bigger challenge to discover useful resources.

This year’s National Minority Health Month focuses on health literacy, noting that better health is possible through better understanding. As the Health and Human Services website explains, “When patients are provided with culturally and linguistically appropriate information, they are empowered to create healthier outcomes for themselves and their communities.”

So how can you take charge and become more health literate? Here are two steps to start your journey.

Learn basic language used in healthcare.

Healthcare has a lot of specific words and phrases; it can seem overwhelming during a conversation when acronyms or medical terminology are used. You won’t be able to learn all the jargon, but you can understand some frequently used language. For example, knowing the difference between health insurance premiums and deductibles will help you understand what you may need to pay. Recognizing that PCP refers to your primary care provider (or main doctor) can assist in completing forms. You can find a booklet on healthcare insurance basics here and a glossary that explains medical terms in easier language here. Remember: If someone says something you don’t understand, stop and ask them to explain in plain language.

Be active in your healthcare.

Before any medical appointments, gather all your medicines; you can take them with you, take photos to share, or make a list. Don’t forget to include over-the-counter items like ibuprofen and vitamins. Write down questions you want to ask and know what is most important for you to learn.

During the appointment, speak up. Explain your symptoms and concerns fully. If you need treatment, ask about all the options available; if there are tests, have your medical provider explain why you need it, how the test is done (including how it impacts your day-to-day), and what you hope to learn from it. Once you understand the next step, make sure to tell your providers if there might be anything preventing you from following the instructions (like needing transportation to a test or costs of medications.)

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health, Dr. Brett P. Giroir, observed, “Health for all Americans starts with health literacy.” To protect your health and do your best to prevent future health problems—and better manage any health problems that do arise—become a life-long health learner.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control & Prevention; Health & Human Services; Families USA; Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality; UnitedHealth Group.

Categories: Aging Well, Senior Health