Monday, October 14, 2013

October – It’s About Understanding Health

Let's face it. Understanding the principles of good health can be difficult: confusing.  The info you need to improve your health is often unavailable, hard to find, or hard to understand. Every day, Americans face the challenge of making life-changing decisions about their health.  These major decisions are often made in doctor's offices, but just as often, we make medical and health decisions in real-world places: at grocery or drug stores, workplaces, or around the kitchen table.  To make the best possible decisions, we need information. Understandable and readily available information.

Making health more understandable is the core goal of Health Literacy Month.  This annual nationwide event, founded in 1999, encourages people and businesses to promote the importance of understandable health information.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines health literacy as the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.  And the CDC is so concerned about the nationwide problem of health illiteracy that they created a website to raise awareness and offer ideas and solutions for improving health literacy.

The need for better health literacy

Research by the CDC and others shows that health information is too often presented in ways that are not usable by most adults. The CDC reports that nearly 90 percent of adults have difficulty using health information, even when it is readily available. As a result, many of us end up skipping needed medical tests, end up in emergency rooms more often, and have a greater difficulty managing chronic diseases. 

With risks like these, there is no question that we need raised awareness of the problem – that we need a Health Literacy Month to raise awareness and seek solutions.  The good news is, Health Literacy Month is making a difference. Since its founding, there have been thousands of events from coast-to-coast, and even around the world, raising awareness of the need for understandable health information.  Beyond awareness, the CDC adds that every organization involved in health information and services needs its own health literacy plan to improve its organizational practices.

How others have improved health literacy in their areas

For the October 2013 Health Literacy Month, the goal is to create health literacy heroes – individuals and organizations that actively work to improve how we communicate health information. And for many years, groups and individuals have worked to host health literacy events, such as patient health education programs, educational opportunities for the general public, and communication workshops for health professionals.

For example, North Carolina’s Wake Health Literacy Coalition is improving health literacy in its area by educating professionals and the public on how to clearly communicate about health.  Another inspiring example: Sinai Urban Health Institute Asthma Team has created a “Helping Children Breathe and Thrive” program, operating within Chicago Housing Authority developments, meeting underserved people in their homes, often teaching teaching them how to use medications or assessing homes for adverse asthma-related environmental problems, such as mold. 

What you can do to improve health literacy

If health literacy is a topic you’re passionate about, there are many methods you can apply to promote health literacy success.   Here are some examples:
  • GET TRAINING. Do you work in the health profession? Getting training in health literacy is essential for you and your business. There are many courses available to help, such as the self-directed training course A Physician's Practical Guide to Culturally Competent Care, or the free five-hour course Effective Communication Tools for Healthcare Professionals. 
  • READ TO GET UP TO SPEED. Check out the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  This downloadable guidebook seeks to engage organizations and individuals in an effort to improve health literacy. The plan includes seven broad goals with multiple high level strategies for various stakeholders and provides a focal point for the field.
  • SHARE AND INTERACT. To help you get the word out, and grow your own knowledge, check out the CDC's Health Literacy Blog, where you can join in on discussions and share your ideas about what you would like to see CDC and other public health agencies do to improve health literacy. Also, review these CDC suggestions and resources to help you communicate key points about health literacy to colleagues, staff, leadership, and the community.
At, you can find many resources specifically designed to help you develop and organize health literacy events. Check out their resources page, where you can purchase their Health Literacy Success Kit, Health Literacy Month Handbook, a podcasting guide, and the book Health Literacy from A to Z. 

To find an event near you, check out the CDC's Health Literacy Activities by State web page.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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