Health Literacy: Putting Your Information to Work For You

Health literacy is the degree to which people understand healthcare information. Learn about why this is such a pressing topic in today's complex healthcare landscape.

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Health Literacy: Putting Your Information to Work For You

A toddler sits at the table, hearing his parents put sounds together to make words. With continued exposure he will eventually know what those sounds mean. He has already learned what “no” means and what a “doggie” is, but does he correctly associate those words with their meanings? To him doggie might mean, “Let’s go on a walk” or “Let’s go to the zoo” because he sees dogs during walks or on trips to the zoo. Eventually he will be able to correctly use these words, and this will become his foundation for literacy.

Literacy is the ability to take sets of information and attach meaning to them. There are numerous areas where literacy can be achieved, i.e., cultural literacy, scientific literacy, financial literacy, digital literacy, health literacy, and more. Regardless of the area of focus, consumers need to know how to gather relevant information and put it to work for them.

Health literacy can be a patient being able to read the label on a prescription bottle, or a patient interpreting the hospital discharge instructions after having surgery the previous day. Health literacy can be a patient scheduling an annual physical because they heard that preventive care is covered under the Affordable Care Act. Health literacy can be a patient requesting a second opinion on a diagnosis about which she feels uneasy. Health literacy can simply be a result of open dialogue between the patient and provider. Although the results of heath literacy can appear differently, health literacy should always include a patient taking charge of their own health-related decisions.

As of 2019, the US Department of Health and Human Services suggests that 9 in 10 Americans have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in our health care facilities, retail outlets, media, and communities. How can having limited health literacy affect individuals’ decision-making process?

Researching Your Health

Consumers with low levels of literacy can have a hard time distinguishing between high- and low- quality information. If a person has a headache and nausea, the first search result on Google could provide a treatment. If a person is experiencing debilitating fatigue and unexplained weight gain, a simple online symptom checker could provide a diagnosis. Maybe someone questions what a sore throat means—is it an allergy, a cold, Covid-19, or a flu virus? Could it be cured using a homeopathic remedy? With the amount of information available at the click of a button, it can feel impossible to navigate the results.

Open your favorite search engine and type in the keyword, “heartburn.” With more than 65 million results, the amount of information available is staggering. How then should a consumer work toward obtaining high-quality information?

Consumers can start by adding layers of relevant information to a search query.  By typing “heartburn, American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy” the results can be cut by nearly 90%.  Not only is there less information to comb through, but the results are now more targeted and credible and will better assist consumers in determining their next step for treatment.

Advocating for Your Health

Low-literacy consumers can be linear in their approach to a problem. Once a concern or question is developed throughout the healthcare process, they may skip over words or phrases they don’t understand. Often, they may accept a test result or diagnosis at face-value because they don’t feel confident in their ability to question a professional opinion.

On the contrary, high-literacy consumers may understand the value of questioning a diagnosis that doesn’t seem right.  A 2017 study, published in the online Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, conducted by Mayo Clinic, showed that 21% of patients who sought a second opinion left with a completely new diagnosis, 66% were partially correct, but the second doctor further refined the diagnosis.

High-literacy consumers are more likely to understand and utilize the tools that are available to them.  In April 2021, a bipartisan bill went into effect allowing patients access to their health information at no charge and without delay.

Open notes can provide clarity for prescribed medications, information about follow-ups, and any ideas about preventive care. Patients can ask more informed questions and be more confident in their decisions. With access to this type of information, patients are better prepared to manage their health.

Health information

Too Much of a Good Thing Is Not Always a Good Thing

Information overload can stress even the most informed consumers. Large amounts of information can completely overwhelm low-literacy consumers, thereby preventing them from receiving valuable information they need to take their health into their own hands. For example, a prescription bottle often has additional information attached that may be overlooked by some consumers.

Furthermore, in a world of instant gratification, consumers often have limited-attention spans. Knowing this, drug manufacturers list the most crucial information first to increase the likelihood that this information is read.

Let’s review the anti-diabetic medication, Metformin’s drug information sheet, as an example. The first piece of information readers see is an important warning about a rare life-threatening condition known as lactic acidosis. Right away, it also mentions the necessary conversations that should be had with a doctor before starting the medication. This is followed by information about why the medication is prescribed and how it should be used. Bullet points like those used in side-effect lists are used to help low-literacy consumers focus on crucial information.

Nobody can force a consumer to read information inserts, but it is now standard practice for a pharmacist to speak directly to the consumer before releasing the medication. This provides the pharmacist another chance to highlight any important warnings, while also allowing the consumer to ask any additional follow-up questions.

How PharmAvail Works Closely to Improve Health Literacy

PharmAvail’s Prior Authorization team of technicians, pharmacists, and medical director oversees the prescribing of medications and ensures that prescribers are utilizing the highest quality care at the best price. It takes the guesswork out of the hands of the patient to find the most cost-effective treatment.  Instead, it allows a highly specialized team of professionals to review guidelines, analyze costs, and evaluate the appropriateness and safety of a prescribed medication.

Looking Forward

The medical landscape is continuously evolving. From new diagnostic tools to a greater understanding of the complexities of disease states, there is an ever-growing body of information that consumers would benefit from understanding. By placing a greater emphasis on increasing health literacy, consumers will be better prepared to deal with the inherent intricacies associated with better health.