Health Literacy is the Basis of Self-Management

Farmington, CT (March 2, 2018) – Have you ever finished reading an article on the latest health trend then wondered to yourself “What did I just read?” Have you ever been sitting in a doctor’s appointment and not understood what illness you may have or how to treat it? You’re not alone.

The healthcare industry is complex and difficult to navigate. The ability to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information to make appropriate health decisions is something lots of individuals struggle with. This is called health literacy.

Health literacy is the foundation of self-management. Before you can take action to improve or manage your health, you first have to understand it. Tasks that are difficult for people with low health literacy include reading consent forms, medicine labels, health articles and brochures, and keeping scheduled appointments. These may seem like simple tasks but they represent challenges to a majority of Americans. Only about 1 in 10 (12 percent) of adults in the U.S. have the skills they need to be truly proficient navigating the healthcare system.

What about the other 88 percent of Americans?

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy broke down how health literate we are into four levels:

    • Below Basic

      Able to read a set of short instructions and identify what to drink or not drink before a medical test

    • Basic

      Able to read a pamphlet and give two reasons a person with no symptoms should be tested for a disease

    • Intermediate

      Able to read instructions on a prescription label and determine what time a person can take medication

    • Proficient

      Able to use a table and calculate an employee’s share of health insurance costs while taking into account deductibles and in-network and out-of-network costs

    Here’s a scenario: Your doctor asks you to take 30 mg of prednisone every day for a week. The pharmacist gives you a bottle of 5 mg tablets. How many tablets should you take each day?

    In the National Assessment, 39% of people got this wrong. Someone with proficient health literacy would figure this out in a matter of seconds. But if you got it wrong, can you effectively manage your health? What if you need to take three or four medicines a day? And what if you need to take them three or four times a day? These are difficult situations and questions our members face every day. 

    How can you tell if someone has low health literacy? Just assume that most people do have low health literacy and engaging them will become easier. Try to ask them open-ended questions instead of simple “yes” or “no” questions. This gives them the opportunity to explain something in their own words instead of agreeing with an answer they may not have understood. Be aware of sophisticated medical terms and try to define them or replace them with words everyone understands. For example, instead of saying “dermatologist” say “skin doctor”, or instead of saying “hypertension” say “high blood pressure”. Remember to speak slowly and always keep it simple.

    You may also be able to assess a member’s health literacy by asking them one simple question, “How confident are you filling out medical forms by yourself?” Most people cringe at the thought of having to spend time filling out these forms, but truthfully, some people don’t have the ability to do so at all. When someone can’t fill out basic medical forms on their own then they can’t accurately explain what is wrong with them. Consequently they can’t get the professional help they need and they won’t be able to manage their condition on their own time.

    Before someone can learn to read, they have to learn the alphabet. The same principle goes for managing our health conditions. We need to understand what is wrong before we can treat ourselves and ultimately prevent it from happening again. Looking for a fun way to see how well you can assess someone’s health literacy? Take our quiz and find out!



    Adam Caporiccio

    Adam started his career as a graphic designer for a large publishing company. He has since transitioned into the health industry as Envolve PeopleCare’s communications specialist, using his talents to write and design a variety of healthcare materials.



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