October is Health Literacy Month. I’ve written about this subject a great deal, and when it rolled around this month, I wondered if I had anything new to say on the topic. As I began my research, I realized that of course I have more to say because health literacy is something that we must talk about again and again to assert its importance in the health communication and public health arenas.
In particular, what stands out to me is that improving health literacy is NOT something health communicators (including writers, editors, bloggers, marketers, and public health advocates) alone should focus. When the Health and Human Services (HHS) launched its National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, the goal was for health care providers and payers to enhance their communication skills and provide clear information to patients.
I can stand on my health literacy soapbox all day and talk about how we need to do better as health communicators to make sure that patients understand the words that we use when we provide health information and education. But to truly address this issue, we need the rest of the players in the health care industry to step up beside us on that soapbox and show greater dedication to adopting health literacy principles.
The HHS report contains seven goals that will improve health literacy and suggests strategies for achieving them:
- Develop and disseminate health and safety information that is accurate, accessible, and actionable
- Promote changes in the health care system that improve health information, communication, informed decision making, and access to health services
- Incorporate accurate, standards-based, and developmentally appropriate health and science information and curricula in child care and education through the university level
- Support and expand local efforts to provide adult education, English language instruction, and culturally and linguistically appropriate health information services in the community
- Build partnerships, develop guidance, and change policies
- Increase basic research and the development, implementation, and evaluation of practices and interventions to improve health literacy
- Increase the dissemination and use of evidence-based health literacy practices and interventions
Since HHS launched the plan in 2010, I believe some positive changes have been made, but I also believe that we still have a great deal of work to do to reach these goals. Health literacy is about more than just understanding. Health literacy can be a matter of life and death. So, although this month marks Health Literacy Month, health literacy is something we should focus on all year round. It’s too important not to.