MSN Course Insight: The Basics of Health Literacy
Our bodies are complex. Even the most knowledgeable scientists and healthcare professionals don’t understand every system perfectly. When it comes to the average person, that lack of understanding can go a lot deeper. In fact, many people have only the most basic understanding of how the body functions, which also may mean they have an equally poor understanding of how healthcare works.
As a nurse, part of your job is to help patients better understand their health and any treatment they may need. This understanding is called health literacy. But before you can effectively improve the health literacy of others, you need to understand what health literacy is and why it’s so important.
One overview of health literacy comes from the “Quick Guide to Health Literacy,”1 provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and studied as part of the Transforming Nursing and Healthcare Through Information Technology course offered in Walden University’s Master of Science in Nursing program. “The Quick Guide to Health Literacy” explains the basics of health literacy this way:
What is health literacy?
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 dependent on individual and systemic factors:
- Communication skills of lay persons and professionals
- Lay and professional knowledge of health topics
- Demands of the healthcare and public health systems
- Demands of the situation/context
Health literacy affects people’s ability to:
- Navigate the healthcare system, including filling out complex forms and locating providers and services.
- Share personal information, such as health history, with providers.
- Engage in self-care and chronic-disease management.
- Understand mathematical concepts such as probability and risk.
Health literacy includes numeracy skills. For example, calculating cholesterol and blood sugar levels, measuring medications, and understanding nutrition labels all require math skills. Choosing between health plans or comparing prescription drug coverage requires calculating premiums, copays, and deductibles.
In addition to basic literacy skills, health literacy requires knowledge of health topics. People with limited health literacy often lack knowledge or have misinformation about the body as well as the nature and causes of disease. Without this knowledge, they may not understand the relationship between lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise and various health outcomes.Health information can overwhelm even persons with advanced literacy skills. Medical science progresses rapidly. What people may have learned about health or biology during their school years often becomes outdated or forgotten, or it is incomplete. Moreover, health information provided in a stressful or unfamiliar situation is unlikely to be retained.
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