Many North Carolinians don’t have the tools they need to live healthy lives, and hardly anyone is paying attention. Low health literacy rates nation-wide indicate that many people have trouble making sense of health care jargon and navigating a horribly complex health care system.
What is health literacy?
Health literacy is basically how well people can understand information about their health. For example, if you went to the doctor and they said you had high cholesterol, would you know what that meant? Would you be able to understand the instructions for the medications you were sent home with? Do you know enough about health insurance to figure out if your medications will be covered, or to appeal a claim that has been denied?
The concept of health literacy differs from literacy itself. Health literacy requires basic reading skills, but also the ability to understand oral communication, use numbers and math skills, understand how to navigate the health system on a basic level, as well as the ability to communicate with health care providers and their staff.”UNC at Chapel Hill Health Sciences Library
People with lower health literacy levels might not understand their doctor’s advice. They are less likely to understand how to manage a chronic condition like diabetes or high blood pressure. Unsurprisingly, they are also more less likely to receive preventative care, and more likely to end up in the hospital.
North Carolina has historically low literacy, but the data is badly outdated.
Despite the widespread impact of low literacy, there is surprisingly little data on the rates of low health literacy in the US. UNC maintains an interactive map of health literacy levels in the US by state and county. Unfortunately, the data included is from 2003.
In fact, this data, from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, is the first (and currently only) nation-wide measurement of health literacy. This survey found that 43% of US adults have basic or below basic health literacy. That means that 43% of adults would have trouble with tasks like knowing when during the day to take a certain medication.
Current interventions aimed at health care professionals, not patients.
Currently, there are a lot of resources to help doctors explain things better. Unfortunately, there aren’t many resources to help patients make sense of a complicated system. This is a worthy goal, but it only addresses one part of the problem.
In the meantime, if you find yourself confused by health care jargon, know you are not alone. Health and insurance information can be complicated, and even confuses experts. Ask questions. Consider reaching out to a patient advocate who can help you navigate the system.
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