Literacy, health and you

Choosing a healthy lifestyle, knowing how to seek medical care, and taking advantage of preventative measures, requires people to understand and use health information.

  • Feb. 27, 2011 8:00 p.m.

Frequent readers of the Literacy articles published by the Caledonia Courier will already know that literacy in this day and age consists of more than the “three R’s” of reading, writing and arithmetic, and includes thinking and verbal skills; using documents and computers; as well as the ability to work with others and to engage in lifelong learning.

These Essential Skills are necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to fully develop one’s knowledge and potential.

What readers may not know is how important they also are to personal and community health.

Choosing a healthy lifestyle, knowing how to seek medical care, and taking advantage of preventative measures, requires people to understand and use health information.

The ability to obtain, process, and understand health information needed to make informed health decisions is known as Health Literacy.

Health Literacy requires people to have good oral skills in order to communicate their health concerns to others; good reading skills to stay informed about health issues; the ability to understand documents and graphs; math skills to calculate cholesterol or blood sugar levels, measure medications, or understand nutritional labels; and strong analytical and thinking skills to evaluate information or interpret test results.

Medical science progresses rapidly. What people may have learned about health or biology during their school years often becomes outdated or forgotten.

Given the complexity of the healthcare system, it is not surprising that limited Health Literacy is associated with poor health.

•Persons with limited Health Literacy skills are less likely to use preventative services such as mammograms, pap smears and flu shots and tend to enter the healthcare system when they are sicker, and to make medication errors.

•Persons with limited Health Literacy skills are more likely to have chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma or HIV/AIDS and be less able to manage them effectively.

•Low literacy adversely impacts cancer incidence, mortality, and quality of life.

•Limited Health Literacy skills are associated with an increase in preventable hospital visits; a higher rate of hospitalization and greater use of emergency services.

•Studies further demonstrate that persons with limited Health Literacy skills are significantly more likely to report their health as poor.

Populations most likely to experience low Health Literacy are older adults, racial and ethnic minorities, people with less than a high school diploma, people with low incomes, non-native speakers of English and people with compromised health status.

“Precisely those people who had the greatest need for health care had the least ability to read and comprehend information needed to function as patients” (JAMA, Feb 10, 1999).

Reasons for limited literacy skills include lack of educational opportunity – people with a high school education or lower; people with learning disabilities, and cognitive decline in older adults.

“Use it or Lose it” – reading abilities are typically three to five grade levels below the last year of school completed.

Therefore people with a High School diploma typically read at a grade seven or eight level.

The relationship between literacy and health is complex. Literacy impacts health knowledge, health status and access to health services.

Health status is further affected by socioeconomic factors. Literacy impacts income level, occupation, education, and housing.

The poor and those with low literacy are more likely to work under hazardous conditions or to be exposed to environmental toxins.

Community responsibly for promoting health literacy can be distributed widely and could include: literacy groups (adult basic education, English as a Second Language); community organizations of all types; the education system; public libraries; senior-citizen facilities, and health care providers, facilities and associations.

Lastly there is also an onus on individuals to take responsibility for improving their own Health Literacy, by improving on the Essential Skills already mentioned.

Fortunately in Fort St. James the Learning Hub, sponsored by the College of New Caledonia provides free training and educational upgrading to interested individuals in any or all of the Essential Skills.

For further information call Alex of Jamie at 250-996-7078.

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