By: Sheila Snow-Croft, Public Health Coordinator, National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NN/LM), Southeastern/Atlantic Region (SE/A)
Contact Sheila at: email@example.com
Health Literacy, or Health Information Literacy, is an important topic and goal in the world of medical libraries and healthcare. We in the NN/LM have a class called “Promoting Health Literacy through Easy-to-Read Materials” (contact us if you’re interested in our teaching it for your group). A good standard definition is by Ratzan, S., and R. Parker (2000) and Healthy People 2010: “The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health care decisions.” In the past, we defined health literacy as the ability to read and do basic math, such as that needed for medications, but it has evolved to include the ability to navigate our current, incredibly complex, healthcare system. Health literacy is more of a concept than a capacity; to be truly literate one needs the ability to make informed choices in a system that is nothing if not confusing, understand how to reduce risks for poor health, and proactively improve quality of life. These are huge goals and the path to achieve them is long. It is also important to realize that health literacy is not just a goal for individuals dealing with their own health but for everyone in the healthcare field: information must be presented well if it is to be understood and properly consumed.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a “Clear Communication” initiative to address health literacy that was established by their Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL) with the goal of cultivating “a growing health literacy movement by increasing information sharing of NIH educational products, research, lessons learned, and research in the area of health literacy.” http://www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/ They focus on two primary objectives: “[p]roviding information in the form and with the content that is accessible to specific audiences based on cultural competence, and [i]ncorporating plain language approaches and new technologies.” Plain language is a frequently used term; note that it is a tool for improving health literacy, a strategy for making both written and spoken information easier to understand.
The CDC has an excellent web page that provides links to reports, research, information specific to the needs of older adults, standards, and global health literacy web pages: http://www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/resources.html. They link to resources provided by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Health and Human Services (HHS), the Office of Minority Health, and the Indian Health Service, among others. Also, the Health Resources and Services Administration, (HRSA), has a free online course that is self-paced and targeted to healthcare professionals but also appropriate for consumers who “want to improve their health communication skills and understanding of the literacy, culture and language” of health literacy. http://www.hrsa.gov/publichealth/healthliteracy/
The National Library of Medicine has a page that details a MEDLINE/PubMed Search and additional Health Literacy Information Resources: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/services/queries/health_literacy.html. Finally, MedlinePlus has an easy-to-read Health Literacy section for the public: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/healthliteracy.html.
We must all work together to increase health literacy. The theme for Health Literacy Month 2014 is “Be a Health Literacy Hero.” It’s about taking action and finding ways to improve health communications. Health Literacy Heroes are individuals, teams, or organizations who not only identify health literacy problems, but also act to solve them (http://www.healthliteracymonth.org/.) Celebrate Health Literacy Month and share what you learn with family and friends.