A lot of factors contribute to our risks for certain illnesses and chronic conditions, and how well we manage if and when we do get sick. Our ability to access and understand health information, also known as “health literacy,” is one of these important factors. 

Unfortunately, nearly 36% of U.S. adults have low health literacy. The good news is that while many risk factors for disease, such as genetics, are beyond our individual control, our level of health literacy is something that we can always improve. 

According to the National Library of Medicine, health literacy is “The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

Health literacy is affected by individual characteristics such as age, education level and communication skills, but it also depends upon how clearly health information is delivered — whether that information is spoken, written or visual, Rima Rudd, senior lecturer on health literacy, education, and policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public health, told MedTruth.

There are some problems with the way information is being communicated about COVID-19, Rudd said. For instance, complex charts and graphs are popping up in the media and from health groups without explanation of what they mean, and terms like ‘flatten the curve’ are not ones the average adult has come across before.  

A 2003 report from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that just 12% of American adults have proficient health literacy skills, while a review of scientific literature from 2011 found that limited health literacy makes it tougher for patients to manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease and others. 

Low literacy skills along with factors like access to education, age, poverty, speaking English as a second language, and where and whether you work have all been associated with health literacy. How clearly patient education materials are written, the words doctors use, and whether there’s time to answer patients’ questions also contribute, Rudd said.

Crystal L. Greicar, a 42-year-old nurse based in Grafton, Wisconsin, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in June. Even as a health care provider, Greicar didn’t recognize her own early symptoms right away. When Greicar’s doctor wanted her to get a CT scan of her lungs as part of follow-up care, Greicar didn’t understand why. 

“(The doctor) didn’t have time to explain and there wasn’t time to ask,” Greicar told MedTruth. She later found out that she had also had pneumonia, which had been identified by the CT scan.

How can health care consumers and patients support their health literacy? Rudd offered a few tips:  

  • Use trusted sources of information from groups like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
  • Be aware that information from websites ending in “.org,” “.edu,” or “.gov” are generally more authoritative than ones that end in “.com.” 
  • In news articles, check who information is being attributed to — or what sources are being referenced.