On Your Calendar: Health Literacy Month

Mallory Edgar, MPH

Population Health Service Fellow

City of Milwaukee Health Department
Diverse & Resilient

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Image by Health Literacy Consulting
via Health Literacy Month

In case you haven’t heard, October is Health Literacy Month! Started in 1999, this awareness month exists to bring attention to the topic of health literacy and what it means in people’s lives. Many folks in the public health field, myself included, are very interested in health literacy and spend a great deal of time thinking about how it impacts an individual’s health and well-being. For those outside the health professions (and, unfortunately, even many who are in this field), this topic may be something entirely new to think about. Not sure you understand this “health literacy” business? Read on!

Minus the “health” part, “literacy” refers to a person’s basic ability to read and write. This, in and of itself, is an issue of great concern in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy (2013), 14% of U.S. adults are unable to read and 21% read below a fifth grade level. Literacy is a skill that is vital for a person to function easily and effectively in so many settings, from work to school to – you guessed it – health systems. When we’re thinking about that last setting, however, our concern becomes about more than just basic reading and writing. Health literacy is more complicated. According to the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (2013),

Health literacy […] requires a complex group of reading, listening, analytical, and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health situations. For example, it 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.”

Adequate health literacy also includes health numeracy, which involves understanding numbers, quantitative words (e.g., “small” or “increase”), and quantitative images (e.g., charts and graphs) related to health topics. It “encompasses the numerical knowledge needed to understand and act upon directions and recommendations given by health care providers” and includes a multitude of skills “such as arithmetic and use of percentage as well as higher-level concepts like estimation, problem-solving, error in measurement, probability, and risk concepts” (Apter et al., 2009, p. 386).

Image by U.S. FDA via Wikimedia Commons
Examples of how health literacy and numeracy affect a person’s health and well-being can be found everywhere in our daily lives. Nutrition facts on food products are a great illustration of how both literacy and numeracy can impact an individual’s ability to make healthy choices about what they eat. This means we have to think of ways to educate people about how to interpret nutrition facts, or come up with creative ways to explain or simplify this information.

Take a minute to think about how many times you interact with health-related information on a given day. Do you always understand all of it and/or the action steps you’re supposed to take based on that information? If you’re reading this blog, the odds are good that your answer is generally “yes.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many people, including individuals of lower socioeconomic status, and those with low education levels and/or decreased cognitive ability. (Sound familiar? See shor’s post about health disparities and health equity.)

In short, poor health literacy negatively impacts a person’s ability to fully and effectively manage and advocate for their own health and the health of individuals in their care. The bottom line is this: Health information – no matter how accurate, comprehensive, or up-to-date – is useless if those who need it cannot understand and act upon it. Public health and medical professionals must be sure to remember this when designing and delivering health communications.

Find out more about health literacy and related resources here.