Health Information for Everyone

Health Literacy Month is recognized in October

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) How much time do you spend interpreting and reading over your medication's side effects, dosage instructions or patient consent forms? It doesn’t have to be so difficult. 

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.

In 1999, October was designated as Health Literacy Month. During this month, many organizations are raising awareness on how important it is for people to have access to health information that they are able to comprehend.

"Ask questions if you don't understand your doctor's instructions."

On a daily basis, people are confronted with situations where they need to understand information that can affect their health or the health of others.

For example, a worried mother may need to read and understand the dosage information written on her child's medicine container. Or a patient still in shock from being diagnosed with a chronic disease that she has never heard about needs to understand and follow the instructions given by her doctor. Another example would be a new employee who needs to understand the benefits that his medical insurance provides for him and his family. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nine out of 10 adults have difficulties using the health information that is offered at healthcare facilities. In addition, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy classified 36 percent of adults in the United States as having limited health literacy.

CDC reported that health literacy empowers individuals to take control of their health. For this reason, October was assigned by Helen Osborne (president of Health Literacy Consulting) as the month to raise awareness and help people with limited health literacy.

Studies have shown that is common for people to have difficulties interpreting medical information, and that anyone can be affected by limited health literacy, regardless of age, race, intelligence, education or income.

Furthermore, the American Medical Association reports that this problem of limited health literacy gets worse when so many patients feel ashamed to ask for clarifications from their doctors.

The US Department of Health and Human Services recognizes that is necessary to improve the way health information is presented. Health information is often written by lawyers, doctors and researchers, and they use technical terms and writing styles that are not used in everyday conversations.

The government has implemented initiatives to address the limited health literacy problem in US. Different organizations provide resources on how to communicate health messages in more effective ways.  Some of the resources are:

  • Tools to measure health literacy
  • Guide on how to organize information, the use of language and visuals to create materials
  • Steps for developing an action plan and professional practices to improve health literacy
  • How to limit medical errors for patients with limited English proficiency
  • Universal precautions to minimize the risk that something is not clear for everyone

There are also online tools and educational programs created for the general public to increase their health literacy. For example:

  • How to evaluate information for credibility and quality
  • How to analyze risks and benefits
  • How to interpret test results
  • How to find health information

The CDC website also lists the activities that have been organized in each state to raise awareness of health literacy this October.

"I recommend one of three actions: use the internet, the FDA site which is comprehensive and easily understood, contact your doctor or pharmacist, or contact the manufacturer. Make certain to record your concerns, what is being treated and what for, before contact a medical professional. If you are prepared and cool, calm and collected, your information source will be grateful and more than happy to help you. This is the first step to becoming an informed patient," Suzi Garber, BA, the Executive Director of The Patient's Project, told dailyRx News.

Helen Osborne, founder of Health Literacy Month, said that the best way to raise health literacy awareness is doing so together. She invites people to take health literacy action during this month and to spread the word about the importance of understandable health information.

Review Date: 
October 9, 2013
Last Updated:
October 11, 2013