Health Literacy: Understanding What Your Health Care Professional Is Saying

Do you avoid going to your health care professional because you’re worried about what you might find out, you don’t like dealing with all those forms or because some of the medical terms can be confusing? If so, you’re not alone.

But understanding what your health care professional tells you and knowing what to do about it are essential for good health.

What is health literacy and how can you improve it?

Health literacy is the ability to read and understand information about your health and make decisions about it. Below-average health literacy is very common, especially if your access to health information and health care is limited. But it’s not an indicator of intelligence.

To improve your health literacy be actively involved in your health care appointment to help make decisions about the best, most cost-effective treatment. But sometimes that’s easier said than done. Have you ever heard anything like this?

“No hypertension, glucose levels of some concern, triglycerides look okay, but your LDL is a bit high so I’m going to put you on statins and we’ll see how that goes. We want to schedule you for a biopsy sometime next week just to make sure that growth is nonmalignant.”

If you don’t understand, don’t be shy — keep asking questions! Be honest and ask for help filling out forms if you need it. Here’s a list of questions to help you get started:

  1. What condition do I have and what do I need to do about it?
  2. How will it affect my daily life and future health risks?
  3. How do I take this medication?
  4. What are the possible side effects of this medication, and should I stop taking it if it happens?
  5. Can you help me understand the material you gave me?
  6. Is my condition reversible, preventable and/or treatable?
  7. Is there an alternative to the treatment suggested?
  8. How much will it cost?
  9. Are there other specialists I should see? Who should be involved in my care?
  10. Are there any limitations I need to know about? What about diet? What about physical activity? Is sex safe with this diagnosis?

It’s easy to forget what you want to ask once you’re at the health care professional’s office, so be sure to bring a list of questions that includes any medications or supplements that you’re taking.

With improved health literacy, you can:

  • Prevent health problems.
  • Become more familiar with health information.
  • Better manage health problems when they arise.
  • Lower your health care costs.
  • Decrease your chances for hospitalization.