How Well Do You Understand Your Health?
posted by The Live Better Team | March 27, 2019
Did you answer yes to all these questions? If you didn’t, you’re not alone. Over 77 million American adults have a hard time understanding and acting on health information—a skill often referred to as “health literacy.” Even people who read well and are comfortable with numbers can struggle with health literacy.
“Literacy” is defined as the ability to speak, read, write, listen and understand. Health literacy refers to these same skills in a healthcare setting. People who have high health literacy can successfully find, process and understand health information and use that information to make healthcare decisions. Unfortunately, navigating the healthcare system can be very confusing, and not understanding it can present significant challenges, such as difficulty making appointments or taking medication correctly, and many of these challenges can have both short- and long-term health consequences.
Studies show that by the time a patient leaves an appointment, he or she will have forgotten half of the information discussed during the visit, making it difficult to appropriately follow your doctor’s instructions. These issues can be complicated even further if the patient didn’t understand some or most of what was discussed during the appointment, and that lack of understanding and retention can lead to poor health consequences. For example, those with low health literacy often spend more money on healthcare, have health problems such as depression, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, and are two times more likely to visit the emergency room.
That’s why it’s so important to develop skills that help you improve your health literacy, understand your doctor and make smart healthcare decisions.
The first step in improving your health literacy is understanding how you learn. Everyone has a different learning style and knowing yours can help you find the best way to learn and remember information. There are three main learning styles: visual, aural and kinesthetic. You can take a short quiz here to identify which learning style fits you best.
Visual learners learn by seeing. They usually prefer reading written instructions or looking at graphics to get information. If this applies to you, ask your doctor if you can take any pamphlets home about your condition or if you can have your instructions for treatment printed on a piece of paper. Your doctor might also be able to recommend a good website with resources you can read to learn more.
Aural learners learn best by listening and speaking. If you are an aural learner, practice having a discussion with your doctor by asking questions. Some good questions to ask include:
You can also ask to clarify the information in your own words to make sure you understand your doctor or bring along a family member that can discuss your treatment with you after you leave your doctor’s office.
People with a kinesthetic or tactile learning style remember information by doing or experiencing. If “hands-on” learning is most effective for you, try taking notes throughout your appointment using a notebook or this note-taking worksheet. The physical activity of writing down information can help you remember it better.
If your doctor gives you physical instructions, ask if you can do it in the office while he or she guides you. For example, if you need insulin injections, practice giving yourself a shot in the office.
A second step on the path to health literacy is asking questions and knowing where to go for answers. Sometimes people feel uncomfortable asking questions after a provider explains something during an appointment, but in most cases, the provider would rather have you ask questions or request more resources than have you leave the appointment without a clear understanding of your disease, treatment options and next steps. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if there is something you don’t understand.
If you have health insurance, another place to find answers is through your insurance company, especially if the questions you have are related to the cost of care, what is covered on your plan and other financial concerns. Most insurance plans have a broad range of resources online or over the phone that can help you find providers and facilities that are covered in your network, research the cost of care, and learn more about your health and specific diseases and treatment options. Many health insurance plans also have nurses and other medical professionals who are available on the phone to answer your questions.
As patients it can sometimes feel frustrating to try and navigate the healthcare system, but one of the best ways to prevent unnecessary healthcare spending and improve your health is to understand your own health and the treatment options available to you, and know where to go to get more information when you don’t understand it.
“Want to Know More About Health Literacy?” HealthEd.
“America’s Health Literacy: Why We Need Accessible Health Information.” Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
“4 Cold Hard Facts About Health Literacy.” ProLiteracy.
“Health Literacy | Understanding What Your Doctor is Saying.” American Heart Association.
“Assessing Learning Styles: Practical Tips for Patient Education.” Nursing Clinics of North America.
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.