Health literacy: if you can’t read it, you don’t get it


ResearchBlogging.org

For a long time I’ve been a fan of ‘plainspeak’ or eliminating gobbledegook.  I know my writing is often quite complex, but I try to write as if I’m talking directly to someone – and yes, I do use all those complicated words in real life!

But after working in pain management for a while certain themes keep coming up, and one of them is the large number of people who don’t read and write well.  I value the concept of multiple intelligences, and some people are simply ‘practical’ and hands-on, and don’t like books much – but to actually not be able to read and write well enough to understand common labels and warnings and instructions, that is an incredible handicap.

I have just been reading a paper by Don Nutbeam called ‘The evolving concept of health literacy’ in which he discusses the concept of poor health literacy as a risk factor for poor health status, and conversely, the idea that by improving health literacy it can become an asset to enable people to take control over their health and the factors that shape their health.

Poor health literacy is associated with lower socioeconomic status, reduced use of health resources and information, poorer adherence to treatments and higher drop-out rates.  It’s easy to see why both direct and indirect effects of not being able to make sense of written information might have an effect on health.

Nutbeam’s paper makes the point that decisions about health are made in a context, part of which is the ability of the individual to make their way through the health care system.  This system inevitably involves negotiating paperwork, being aware of pre-requisites for care, being able to clearly state what is needed – and to the right person. More than that, it’s being able to retain the complex information that a health care decision is based on, and maintain that working knowledge to understand why certain actions need to be taken at certain times.  It’s clearly not just about an individual being able to read – its about an interaction between health care systems and individuals, and it includes, according to Nutbeam, three critical points at which literacy directly influences health – access (who do I see? where do I go?), the interaction between the person and the provider (how does the provider ensure the person understands and retains the information?) and self-care (how does the person continue to take best care without directly drawing on the ‘system’).

The alternative view of health literacy as an asset suggests that by improving literacy, it becomes integral to empowering the person to carry out self care – and to receive appropriately tailored information so they can engage in activities that increase wellbeing.

That’s a big ask for a health care system that often does view health as ‘the absense of disease’.

What can you and I do?  Check with our patients whether they can read the information we provide – write simply in bullet point, avoid jargon, make sure patients have time to absorb information before making a decision, and in the end – listening, listening, listening.

D NUTBEAM (2008). The evolving concept of health literacy☆ Social Science & Medicine DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.09.050

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