Nearly one in five American adults read at a 5th grade level or below. An essential component of health care is communication between health professionals and patients. Health Literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Health literacy is not just the ability to read. It includes a complex group of reading, listening, analytical, and decision making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health situations.
The Institute for Medicine’s Board of Neuroscience and Health has found that adults need basic health literacy skills to speak with medical professionals, access health information, follow dosage instructions, make informed health decisions, and to use medical tools for personal and family health care.
In 2015, the 26th annual America’s Health Rankings (produced by the United Health Foundation) ranked Oklahoma 45th overall among the states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that nearly nine out of ten Oklahoma adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in healthcare facilities, retail outlets, media and communities.
The American Medical Association Foundation has said that poor health literacy is a stronger predictor of a person’s health than his age, socioeconomic status, education or ethnicity. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, persons with limited literacy skills are more likely to have chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma, and are less likely to manage them effectively.
One of the most important actions any individual, business, government, or non-profit organization could take to improve Oklahoma’s economy and the health outcomes of Oklahomans is to improve health literacy.
What can we do? Here are some ideas: provide access to reliable health information written at a basic reading level to address the needs of adults with low reading and low English skills and for health providers to use clear communication techniques when talking with low literate patients. Many who have limited literacy levels are reluctant to admit they do not understand the words being used or do not understand the instructions on prescribed medication. Adopt health literacy universal precautions by confirming understanding with patients or employees at all points of contact, limit to two to three messages at a time, and use content that is easy to understand and act on. An example would be to use “avoid salt” instead of “avoid sodium.”
Presentations on safety practices and insurance benefits in your work environment should also include information in clear language and ask for the employee to confirm understanding. Instead of saying “do you understand what I said,” ask the employee to provide you feedback on how clear you were by summarizing what you just told them or ask them to show you.
We must work together to ensure that health information and services can be understood and used by all Oklahomans. Healthier employees are more productive and miss less work if their family is also healthier.