• Stephanie Duguid

Health literacy affects everyone

By Guest Columnist Stephanie Duguid

Health literacy affects everyone

Are you health literate?


In the report Healthy People, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identified health literacy as an important component of health communication, medical product safety, and oral health. Health literacy is defined in Healthy People 2010 as "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions." If you are health literate, you can take care of your health as a part of everyday life, not just when you visit a doctor, clinic or hospital.


Even people who read well and are comfortable using numbers can face health literacy issues when:

  • They aren’t familiar with medical terms or how their bodies work.

  • They have to interpret statistics and evaluate risks and benefits that affect their health and safety.

  • They are diagnosed with a serious illness and are scared and confused.

  • They have health conditions that require complicated self-care.

  • They are voting on an issue affecting the community’s health and relying on unfamiliar technical information.

Health literacy can help us prevent health problems, protect our health, and better manage health problems when they arise. At some point in our lives, we all need to be able to find, understand, and use health information and services.


Health literacy includes the ability to understand instructions on prescription drug bottles, appointment slips, medical education brochures, doctor's directions, and consent forms; and the ability to negotiate complex health-care systems.

Health literacy varies by context and setting and is not necessarily related to years of education or general reading ability. With the move towards a more "consumer-centric" health-care system as part of an overall effort to improve the quality of health care and to reduce health-care costs, individuals need to take an even more active role in health-care-related decisions. To do this, people need strong health-information skills, including being able to:

  • Evaluate information for credibility and quality,

  • Analyze relative risks and benefits,

  • Calculate dosages, and

  • Locate health information.

Oral language skills are important as well. Patients need to articulate their health concerns and describe their symptoms accurately. They need to ask pertinent questions, and they need to understand spoken medical advice or treatment directions. In an age of shared responsibility between physician and patient for health care, patients need strong decision-making skills. With the development of the internet as a source of health information, health literacy may also include the ability to search for and evaluate Web sites.


In Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion, the Institute of Medicine reports 90 million people in the United States have difficulty understanding and using health information. As a result, patients often take medicines on erratic schedules, miss follow-up appointments, and do not understand instructions such as "take on an empty stomach."


Vulnerable populations include:

  • The elderly (age 65+). Two thirds of U.S. adults age 60 and over have inadequate or marginal health literacy skills, and 81% of patients age 60 and older at a public hospital could not read or understand basic materials such as prescription labels.

  • Minority populations.

  • Immigrant populations.

  • Low-income populations. Approximately half of Medicare/Medicaid recipients read below the fifth-grade level

  • People with chronic mental and/or physical health conditions.

The relationship between literacy and health is complex. Literacy impacts health knowledge, health status, and access to health services.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephanie Duguid is Dean of Academic Instruction at Co-Lin. She is also an athletic trainer and nutrition specialist and has been teaching courses related to those two areas as well as practicing what she preaches for more than twenty years.



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