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What is Health Literacy?

Kelsey Tyler

Have you ever received a medical bill you don’t understand? Or do you get frustrated when your doctor won’t prescribe you medication you think you need? Doctor’s visits, insurance, and other elements of health care, can be confusing. And almost 90% of Americans struggle with health literacy. 

Developing stronger health literacy can help you better understand these things so that you can make informed decisions regarding your care.

Types of health literacy

There are two different kinds of health literacy: personal health literacy and organizational health literacy. Both types of health literacy can help you navigate health care much more successfully. 

Personal health literacy

Health and medical information can be difficult to explain. Add complicated health insurance and fee structures, and you can find yourself struggling to make important decisions. Personal health literacy is your ability to understand these things well enough to make informed decisions — even if it means asking embarrassing questions!

You need personal health literacy to understand your visit summary after going to urgent care, to choose preferred treatment protocols, and more. Most people develop personal health literacy by learning about health through organizational health literacy initiatives. 

Organizational health literacy

While you’re responsible for your own health literacy, organizations also bear some of the weight. How much individuals and communities understand about healthcare often depends on how organizations make health information accessible. A variety of stakeholders facilitate organizational health literacy, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), healthcare systems and even private doctors offices. 

Organizations like these are responsible for making access to health information equitable. Many of them do this by simplifying health information for consumption by producing content on social media, blogs, and other digital resources that consumers can find on the internet. They also produce printed materials that you can find at clinics and other healthcare facilities. 

Importance of health literacy

Developing health literacy is important for patients, their families, and the healthcare professionals who provide them with care. Some benefits of health literacy are:

  • Instilling a sense of control over your own health
  • Decreasing hospital visits for preventable illnesses and deaths that cost more than $25 billion each year
  • Improving the quality of communication between patients and healthcare professionals
  • Potentially reducing healthcare disparities
  • Developing confidence and knowledge to advocate for yourself 
  • Adhering to treatment protocols to improve your health following a diagnosis

People who have strong personal health literacy also know how often they need to visit their primary care doctor, dentist, and other preventive care professionals. This helps them maintain their health and catch any new diseases and conditions before they become severe.

Tips for becoming more health literate

If you struggle with health literacy, there are a lot of resources at your disposal. You can start by subscribing to the CDC’s health literacy newsletter. They break down peer-reviewed journals and other advances in medicine to help laypersons learn more about their health. 

If you’re not all that tech savvy, you may benefit from talking to your doctor before diving into other resources. First and foremost, your doctor can answer any questions you have about your own personal health. This is particularly helpful when you’re trying to understand blood test results and other diagnostic tests like x-rays, MRIs, ultrasounds and more. Your doctor probably has many health literacy resources available, like pamphlets, brochures, and other materials that can help you better understand your health.

They can also recommend reliable books and websites that you can learn from. Keep in mind that reading health content online isn’t a replacement for receiving care and advice from a qualified professional. Always seek a healthcare professional’s guidance before you make a decision regarding your health. 

Becoming more health literate doesn’t happen overnight. Like many other goals, you have to work at it. Learning more information about conditions you have or that run in your family is a great place to start. As you expand your health literacy, you’ll have the confidence to make informed health decisions that work best for yourself and your family. 

Ready to book a doctor’s appointment? Visit Zocdoc.

About us

The Paper Gown, a Zocdoc-powered blog, strives to tell stories that help patients feel informed, empowered and understood. Views and opinions expressed on The Paper Gown do not necessarily reflect those of Zocdoc, Inc. Learn more.