A new report by researchers at the University of Missouri’s School of Medicine has found that half of the adult population in the U.S. may be failing to take adequate care of themselves, because they lack the health literacy skills to do so. The inability to understand and effectively apply health information leads to more hospitalizations, reduced preventive care, and increased private and public costs. It is estimated that improved health literacy could save the U.S. up to $175 billion per year. Therefore, one of the main aims of public health in the next decade, should be to increase health literacy for both patients and professionals working in the health sector.
What is Health Literacy?
Numerous studies have shown that many of the most commonly faced diseases (including heart disease and many types of cancer) can be prevented with important lifestyle changes, including regular exercise, a sound Mediterranean-style diet, and stress reduction through mindfulness based activities. However, many people are simply unaware of the cost associated with chronic disease, both personal and economic, or of the simple ways in which their risk of developing disease can be reduced. Far from being merely a public cost issue, illness can affect families in ways beyond those they imagined, often draining savings, causing job loss, and adding considerable stress to family dynamics.
It is important to comprehend that although limited health literacy affects people of all ages and backgrounds, its greatest impact is among lower socio-economic and minority groups.
Health literacy is wider in its scope than mere prevention. According to the above-mentioned report, it encompasses four main goals: that of improvement of quality of care, better community health, reduced health costs, and improved patient and provider experiences.
Detailed training will need to be given to health providers, and patients and their families will need to be empowered via educational and other strategies.
What is the Problem with Current Information?
Decades of research has revealed that almost nine out of 10 Americans find it hard to use the information available in hospitals, clinics, and the media. This leads to missed appointments, more emergency visits, and inadequate management of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
Fortunately, the Department of Health and Human Resources has announced a National Action Plan to improve health literacy, It involves providing all Americans with accurate, comprehensible information and supporting lifelong learning skills, to ensure that people are aware of new information, advise, and strategies.
Health literacy is tied to poor health, reduced lifespans, and increased expense. Since all these areas can be improved through education and awareness (both of health providers and patients), efforts such as the new National Action Plan will hopefully go a long way towards providing vastly improved health and wellbeing outcomes for Americans.