Are you familiar with the term “health literacy?” It’s a concept we should all be aware of. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, health literacy is the ability to understand health information and to use that information to make good decisions about your health and medical care. Low-level health literacy may affect your ability to:

• Prevent illness through proper self care
• Understand nutritional information
• Locate health providers/services when needed
• Fill out medical forms/share your health history
• Manage a chronic disease or condition
• Understand how to manage medication
• Explore alternative/natural health solutions

Unfortunately, many Americans are functionally illiterate in this area─much to our peril as a nation. In fact, poor health literacy may be one of the greatest challenges we face in achieving better health outcomes for people of all ages and reducing health care costs in the United States. How widespread is the problem? According to the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), nearly half of the U.S. adult population─90 million people─have low functional health literacy.

Patients with limited health literacy face a complex array of difficulties which collectively influence their health outcome. These individuals report comparatively poor health status and have a minimal understanding of their medical conditions/treatment. Needless to say, poor health literacy may increase the risk of hospitalization.1

It certainly makes sense that the less you understand the dynamics of your own wellness, the less proactive you can be in preventing health issues─as well as advocating for yourself once they occur. Health literacy involves more than reading skills, it’s also about being able to listen, speak, and grasp health-related concepts. Poor health literacy can show up regardless of age, race, education or income. While this glaring issue can’t be resolved overnight, we can do our small part to call attention to it.

Given the cost of being sick on every level, physically, mentally, emotionally and─most certainly─financially, learning how to protect your health is truly vital. That’s why disease prevention is always a focus in the articles you find here. No matter what the health issue, avoiding it entirely is always the best “cure.” Remember, knowledge is (health) power! So, when it comes to health literacy, how do you rate?

1JAMA. 1999 Feb 10;281(6):552-7