You don’t know what you don’t know. The truth of that statement is more than a little disconcerting. Some say that ignorance is bliss, and maybe in some cases it is best to go about your day blissfully unaware.
But there is no blissfully unaware when it comes to health. As a health communicator for more than 15 years, I’ve made a career out of telling people what they need to know about health or the health care system.
So that’s why, once again, I find myself penning a blog post during Health Literacy Month about the importance of addressing the health literacy issues that abound in this country. Health literacy, which his defined as the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions, remains a critical issue in health communication.
This year’s theme for Health Literacy Month is “Be a Health Literacy Hero.” According to the Health Literacy Month website, the 2015 theme is “about taking action and finding ways to improve health communication.” The site touts Health Literacy Heroes as “individuals, teams, or organizations who not only identify health literacy problems but also act to solve them.”
So that got me thinking. What more can we do to help solve health literacy problems?
Similarly to how you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t “unknow” what you know, which makes the job of a health communicator pretty challenging at times. Once you’ve been working in or around the health care industry for a significant period of time, you inevitably amass a certain amount of health care knowledge. You learn the lingo, and you learn how procedures work and how various diseases function in the body. You have to understand these things to be an effective communicator.
But once you have this knowledge in your head, it’s often hard to remember how little people actually know about health care. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, approximately 36 percent of adults in the United States have limited health literacy, and only 12 percent of the population has proficient health literacy. That’s an awful lot of people struggling to understand basic health information. It’s our job to bridge that gap. Here are some quick tips to do that:
- Pretend that you don’t know what you do. Step outside of your head and convince yourself that you know nothing about what it is you’re writing.
- Assume that you need to explain everything (including spelling out acronyms and providing definitions).
- Break down your writing by sentence. Is each sentence clear? Can the sentence stand on its own? Are you asking the reader to make leaps in logic?
- Choose your words carefully. Sometimes you’ll need to cut down on words, but sometimes you’ll need to add words to properly explain something.
These tips won’t fix the problem of low health literacy levels overnight, but it will get you started on the right page—not just during Health Literacy Month but all the time.
This post is appearing simultaneously at HealthComU and the Healthyist.