October is Health Literacy Month – What is it and why is it important?

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By Crystal Bruce, Health Communication Specialist

During Health Literacy month, we should try to understand what health literacy is and how we can improve it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially defines health literacy as the ability to “obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services.”

Health literacy affects everything from how and why we should take a medication, to reading nutrition labels, to what people should do in a major emergency like an outbreak or natural disaster. Imagine this: a young man takes two tablets daily for an illness on the advice of his doctor. Yet, when he returns for a follow-up visit, his condition has gotten worse. The doctor is puzzled. After asking some questions, he learned that the young man stopped taking the pills because they upset his stomach when he took the two pills each morning. He was supposed to take them separately – one in the morning and one in the evening.

Health information can be confusing for anyone. Nearly 90 percent of people struggle to understand health messages. Many things can affect a person’s health literacy, including age, education, culture, and language. Other variables, like emotional state, can also influence health literacy. For example, stress can affect our ability to understand and act on health information.

Low health literacy affects people of all backgrounds. Even those with high literacy can have low health literacy, especially when faced with a difficult situation, such as a serious medical diagnosis. I work with plain language and clear communication principles every day in my job with Karna. Two years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I learned firsthand how confusing health communications can be. I had all the necessary technical skills, but it’s hard to process what’s happening when you’re in crisis.

There can be consequences on overall public health, too. The COVID-19 pandemic is a clear example of how these skills have very high stakes. Many people found themselves having to navigate telemedicine appointments for the first time or trying to find credible online resources to get information about COVID-19 vaccines—while under the stress of health, financial, family, and other concerns.

Karna recognizes that low health literacy is a hidden epidemic. As public health professionals, we strive to incorporate clear communication and plain language principles across every sector of our portfolio. For example, we helped CDC develop easy to read resources for COVID-19 vaccines. We also collaborate with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to train its members on how to have meaningful and easy to understand conversations with patients about COVID-19. These conversations help patients make the best possible decisions about their health.

For Karna staff, we are prioritizing clear communication and plain language – two important elements of health literacy. For example, we developed clear communication tools and training used when onboarding employees. We also curate health literacy resources and offer ongoing workshops to all staff. Steps like these provide a health literacy framework for the important work we do every day.

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