The moment a health problem arises we lose a degree of personal power. Naturally, in such moments we wish for and/or seek knowledge, guidance and reassurance to stave off insecurity, confusion and fear. We look outside ourselves to experts we find online, in offices and in the halls of clinics. If we’re lucky recovery happens smoothly.
All too often, however, healthcare processes are maimed by the fact that most of us lack a proficient degree of health literacy, a serious problem that can not only prevent us from making good decisions about our healthcare but even stop us from getting the care we so desperately need.
The US Department of Health and Human Services defines health literacy 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.” In fact, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy only 12% of adults have proficient health literacy. Stunningly, this means approximately 9 out of 10 adults lack the necessary skills to effectively advocate for their own health.
The biggest impediments to a strong sense of health literacy are found in populations already struggling with a multitude of obstacles: the elderly, minorities, the poor and populations that are medically underserved. Compounding the health literacy problem (for all populations) is a variety of factors, including such issues as finding appropriate health care providers, filling out confusing forms, sharing medical history, managing chronic health issues, comprehending the outcomes of risky behavior on health, and understanding directions on prescribed medications.
Studies have proved that the degree of health literacy directly affects health status. In order to be our most healthy (and more appropriately cared for in the healthcare system) we must develop as high a degree of health literacy as possible. Achieving this can be approached through a combination of actions designed to educate us while simultaneously demanding a level of personalized attention from healthcare providers. Options to incorporate in your next healthcare challenge include:
Ask information-driven questions.
In the face of a healthcare concern your mind wonders. Rather than waiting for or expecting a practitioner to fill in the blanks, make a list of answers you wish you knew. Then, ask questions that will help you gain a full understanding of diagnosis, treatment options and prognosis. Continue asking questions until you feel satisfied you have all the answers you need to make informed decisions.
Ask open-ended questions.
Force professionals to give full and deep explanations by asking questions that require more than “yes” or “no” answers. Framing questions that begin with “how,” “who,” “when,” “what’ and “where” create discussions that go beyond superficial responses into a knowledge-base that can provide creative and illuminating information.
Request professionals use simple vocabulary.
Doctors are used to speaking in medical-ese. Frequently remind practitioners to translate complex scientific expressions or medical jargon into language that is easily accessible to your frame of reference and understanding.
Repeat back what you’ve heard.
Assumptions lead to mistakes. Listen to what a healthcare professional says, then take the time to summarize and repeat it back to him or her. In doing this you will 1) clinch your understanding, 2) correct any inaccuracies between what was explained and what you understood, and 3) fill in any remaining gaps so that you feel in full control of the facts.
When you feel compromised, unsure and unwell it’s impossible to clearly remember everything you’ve learned and been told in a healthcare meeting. Making notes and treatment outlines—and asking your provider to contribute to them—creates a program for retaining and building upon your health literacy in each stage of your health management process.
Managing health concerns, scares and chronic conditions takes bravery. When we ask “what is courage?” in the realm of health the answer focuses on doing the tough work of health self-advocacy. The more we know, the more we understand, the more effectively we care for ourselves. Perhaps even more importantly, the greater our health literacy the more we reclaim the personal power health problems steal from us. From this courageous and empowered perspective we can more efficiently partner with those in charge of our care so that we reach a level of collaboration that creates treatment and management plans in alignment with who we are, how we live and how we most desire to move forward in achieving health objectives.