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What is Health Literacy and Why Should We Care?

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is the ability to receive and understand a diagnosis, know your options for treatment, and then make decisions based upon the knowledge you have.  Health literacy is important for all people young, old, healthy, sick, rich, or poor.  If you are not health literate it will be more difficult for you to care for yourself or do the basic things necessary to heal from or manage whatever your ailment may be. Health literacy helps prevent unnecessary trips to the hospital, doctor, or urgent care, thus preventing unnecessary medical bills.  It also helps you know when you need to get to the doctor or hospital quickly because there is a life-threatening situation connecting to your condition.  This can prevent long term damage and even death.

How can you become more health literate?

When receiving a diagnosis, make sure to ask every question you have, even if you feel silly asking it.  Read over all materials that the doctor provides for you.  Check out books at your local library or purchase books about it from a bookstore. Look up (reliable) information online from medical journals or competent health service websites.  Learn as much as you can about the disease, disorder, or injury.  Discuss it with your loved ones. Watch (reliable) documentaries or videos online.

Health literacy requires a desire to learn something new to take charge of your health.  The more you know, the better equipped you are to make decisions or know when something is changing with your health.  This makes it easier to get the treatment and medical attention you desire. You do not have to have a chronic condition to become health literate.

Example 1:

A healthy man who has just left a very stressful business conference returns to his hotel with a headache.  He lays down for a little while and the headache is not getting any better.  When he stands up, he feels off balance.  He gets a hot sensation in the back of his head that feels like hot water is pouring down his neck.  The left side of his face starts feeling odd and he has less strength in his arm.  He calls for an ambulance.  When they get there, they begin route to the nearest hospital, but because he is health literate, he insists on going to the nearest stroke center.  He is indeed having a stroke caused by a burst blood clot in his head and if he had gone to the general hospital, they may not have had the urgency, or the training required to save his life.

Example 2: A woman with diabetes went to a nail salon a few days ago.  The attendant accidentally clipped some of her skin during a pedicure.  It started bothering her the next day, but she put a bandage on it and kept going.  The next day she saw it was reddish and swollen and because she knows that even the smallest cuts can lead to detrimental infections in her body due to an immune system that has been weakened by diabetes, she heads to the doctor who is able to prescribe some antibiotic ointment and prevent gangrene. By being health literate, this woman has quite probably saved herself costly treatment for a worse infection and even possibly saved herself a limb.

Health literacy is important.  Learn as much as you can about everything you can so that if/when something happens, you will be ready and knowledgeable.  Anyone can learn, but not everyone does.

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