Understanding Health Information (Health Literacy)

By | November 12, 2019

At some point, nearly all of us have had trouble understanding something about our health. Maybe our doctor used a word we hadn’t heard before. Or he or she explained something in a way that didn’t make sense to us. It is easy to assume that’s just the way it is when you go to the doctor. But that shouldn’t be the case. Understanding health information is an important part of your health. You have to know what things mean if you are to make good decisions about your health care.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is a term used to describe how well people can find, process, and understand the services and information they need to make good health care decisions. It is more than just the ability to read and write. It also includes your ability to listen, follow directions, fill out forms, do basic math, and interact with professionals. It involves many components. These include:

  • Understanding complicated health-related terms or names.
  • Being able to communicate with your doctor or his or her staff.
  • Having basic knowledge of health topics.
  • Having access to information that you can understand.
  • Knowing how the health care system works.
  • Personal factors, including your age, education level, and culture.

Another part of health literacy is the ability to use math. You need math to do such things as measure medicine and understand nutrition labels. You also need it to evaluate health plans, such as comparing premiums or deductibles.

All of these things add up to how well you can understand your health information. And that determines what kinds of decisions you make about your health care. The better you understand things, the better decisions you will make for yourself.

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Path to improved health

There are steps you can take to improve your health literacy. These will help you understand how things work so you can take care of your health in the best possible way. They include:

  • Ask for familiar language. Ask your doctor to use simpler words and avoid technical terms.
  • Ask for an interpreter if you need one. When you make your appointment, don’t be afraid to ask for an interpreter. It is important that you get the health care you need and that you understand what the doctor says.
  • Ask questions. If your doctor uses a word you don’t understand, or if something is not clear, ask him or her to explain it to you.
  • Ask for visuals. If you don’t understand what your doctor is telling you, ask him or her if they can explain the information visually. They may be able to draw a picture or diagram to explain what they are saying.
  • Bring your medicines or a medicine list. Tell your doctor all of the medicines you are taking, including supplements and vitamins. Ask him or her to make sure everything you are taking is okay and there aren’t any interactions.
  • Take notes. Don’t be afraid to write down what your doctor tells you during your appointment. Then you won’t have to worry about remembering everything he or she said.
  • Repeat information back. When your doctor gives you instructions, repeat them back to him or her. This will help them clarify what they mean and make sure you interpreted their directions the right way.
  • Take someone with you. If you are worried about understanding what your doctor says, take someone else with you. They can take notes for you and help you go over the information later.
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Things to consider

What happens if I don’t understand my health information?

You need to understand your health information to be able to make good decisions about your health care. If you don’t understand something, you might accidentally harm your health. Examples of problems with health literacy include:

  • Not knowing how to live a healthy lifestyle.
  • Not knowing how to manage a chronic disease like diabetes.
  • Being confused by the directions on a medicine bottle.
  • Not knowing how to file an insurance form.
  • Not understanding how or when to make a follow-up appointment.
  • Not understanding your doctor’s instructions for treatment.
  • Not being able to understand your doctor because of a language barrier.
  • Not knowing how to interpret basic lab results.

Any of these challenges could lead us to making mistakes in our health care decision-making.

Research has shown that people who can’t understand their health information are less likely to use preventive services. This includes tests like Pap smears, mammograms, and flu shots. They end up in the hospital more frequently. They spend more on health care, have poorer overall health, and have higher death rates.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Can you explain my condition to me?
  • Can you draw a picture or diagram to explain it?
  • Can you use simple explanations?
  • How do I take my medicine?
  • Do you have any written instructions I can take home with me?
  • How can I improve how well I understand my health information?
  • Are there any resources you can tell me about?


U.S. National Library of Medicine, Health Literacy

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Literacy Basics

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