October is Health Literacy Month

What is health literacy?

“Health literacy is the ability to access, understand, appraise, apply and advocate for health information and services in order to maintain or enhance one’s own health and the health of others.”1

Why does it matter?

Patients with low health literacy have poorer health outcomes and use more health care resources.

What can clinicians do?

Use a Universal Precautions approach, treat all patients as if they are at risk of not understanding health information. When health care providers use this approach, they acknowledge that:

  • Professionals can’t accurately identify who understands and who doesn’t.
  • Even individuals with proficient health literacy skills may not attribute the same meaning to health terms and instructions as professionals do. These individuals can sometimes have trouble understanding health information – especially when they are sick, frightened, or in pain.
  • Health literacy can be situational. For example, it may depend on the complexity of the information and the patient’s relevant experiences and stress level.
  • Use plain language.
  • Everyone benefits from clear, actionable information. 2

What can patients do?

  • Write down your concerns and questions before an appointment.
  • Bring a friend or family member with you for an extra set of ears and eyes.
  • Listen carefully to what the healthcare provider says, ask for things to be repeated if necessary.
  • Pay particular attention to instructions you receive: what to do, when to call back, how to take prescriptions.
  • Ask lots of questions.
  • Read and keep your after visit summary or discharge instructions so you can refer to them if you need to.

For more information on how to prepare for a doctor’s appointment visit the National Institute on Aging.

Knowledge is the key to preventing illness, understanding treatment options and providing self-care.

If you have a question or can’t find what you are looking for, contact the Fymoyer Community Health Resource Center at the UVM Medical Center. We can find the information for you or refer you to the best sources. Call us at 802-847-8821, e-mail us at ResourceCenter [at] UVMHealth.org. Visit us on the 3rd Level of the Main Pavilion at the Medical Center. Our website is www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterCHRC

Alan P. Lampson, MLS, is a medical librarian and the lead at the Frymoyer Community Health Resource Center at the UVM Medical Center.

  1. SHAPE America – Society of Health and Physical Educators. https://www.shapeamerica.org/publications/products/health-literacy.aspx
  2. AHRQ Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit. https://www.ahrq.gov/health-literacy/quality-resources/tools/literacy-toolkit/index.html

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