Health Literacy

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This year marks one of the most significant years in the history of the United States of America. The election of 2008 will set in motion a new era for the US. With a lame duck president currently in office there is a 100 percent chance that things are going to change. One of the hot button issues during the campaign season is health care. However, in order to change health care, the United States must first be health literate. In order to do so the following should be known: the definition of health literacy, what health literacy skills are and why they are important, the history behind health literacy, and how health literacy affects the economy.

First, to become health literate one must know the definition of this term. Being health literate does not mean hitting the gym everyday or trying the latest greatest fad diet. Health literacy can best be defined as “The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions (2000).” It really is quite basic in definition but is somehow being overlooked in the United States today. The big problem is not that US citizens are making unwise choices when it comes to health care. The big problem is that US citizens do not know how to get the information about the right decisions, process a right or wrong decision or even understand basic information that relates the to health care and other health services.

According to the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, health literacy includes the following: “The ability to understand instructions on prescription drug bottles, appointment slips, medical education brochures, doctor's directions and consent forms, and the ability to negotiate complex health care systems (Glassman, 2008).” Be wary of the term literacy. Being health literate is not just having the ability to read. Health literacy “requires a complex group of reading, listening, analytical, and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health situations (Glassman, 2008).” To know how to put health literacy to work in a country that is moving towards being centered on the consumer, the consumer must have health literacy skills.

It seems as if every trip to the doctor’s office always starts with a stack of forms, questionnaires, and personal information sheets. From the outset the patient’s health literacy is being tested. Some other tasks that a patient must do are as follows: “evaluate information for credibility and accuracy, analyze risks and rewards, calculate dosages, interpret test results, and locate additional health information (Glassman, 2008).” It is easy to overlook some of these skills, but the fact remains that a big portion of people in the United States do no possess these skills. Miscalculating a prescription that cost $150 could get pretty expensive. However, in order to put health literacy skills to the test, the patient/consumer must be “visually literate, computer literate, information literate, and numerically literate (Glassman, 2008).”

So where and when did this big push for the nation to be literate in health issues come from? In 1998 the American Medical Association (AMA) was the first group to advocate the belief that health illiterate patients affect medical diagnosis and treatments (AMA, 2007). The same article also stated that “poor health literacy is a stronger predictor of a person's health than age, income, employment status, education level, and race.” Being health literate or illiterate can make you younger or older! The biggest push the make the United States a health literate nation might just come from this stat. “Individuals with limited health literacy incur medical expenses that are up to four times greater than patients with adequate literacy skills, costing the health care system billions of dollars every year in unnecessary doctor visits and hospital stays (AMA, 2007).”...
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