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Health literacy: Be health akamai, be health safe

Can you talk to your doctor? Can you ask questions and get good answers? Does your doctor or nurse explain things so you understand? Do you feel you can explain to your family what you need to do to stay healthy?  Let’s learn how you can answer “yes” to all these questions!

October is Health Literacy month. The purpose of this National Health Observance is to make people aware of how health literacy can lead to overall health wellness – that is, being at our physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, emotional and occupational best. So let’s use health literacy to get health akamai (or health smart). We can do this by better understanding our health through good communications with doctors and other medical staff.

What is Health Literacy and why is it important? Health literacy is a person’s ability to understand basic health information and to make the right health decisions. This is important because more than one-third of all American adults, or 89 million people, do not have enough health literacy to complete medical forms. They do not understand medical treatments. They don’t participate in preventive health care (like flu shots).

Research shows, however, that low health literacy is mostly seen in the elderly, the poor, minority groups, people with limited education, and people who did not speak English as children. Economically, this costs the U.S. health care system between $50 and $73 billion per year. This includes poor communications between doctors and patients that lead to adverse outcomes with surgeries, use of health equipment and new medicines. Then, there are more lab tests, more hospital time, more money wasted. We all need to communicate better and work as a team with all health professionals to be akamai about our health, stay safe and save money.

How can I learn to be health akamai?

Talking with your doctor is a first step to better health literacy and being health safe. According to the American Medical Association (2005), Patients have the right to understand health care information that is necessary for them to safely care for themselves. Health care providers have a duty to provide information in simple, clear and plain language, and to check that patients understand the information. 

So, be sure to ask the doctor questions you have and be sure you understand how to care for yourself before you leave the doctor’s office. Take a trusted relative or friend with you if you need help understanding. Ask your doctor to review information with you and be able to explain it back to the doctor in your own words – this is “Teach-back.” Teach-back is a learning tool that encourages your doctor, nurse or health professional to explain your medical procedure to you, then you explain it back to her or him in your own words — what you need to do, how to do it and why. For example, you could explain your new exercise plan, or how to take your new medicine or use your new inhaler.

Beware of relatives and friends who tell you what to do because this may not be right for you. You are unique! Talk to your own doctor to get the right information or best medicine for yourself. When talking with your doctor ask him/her to:

• Slow down and only give the information you need.

• Use plain, nonmedical language. (For example, “high blood pressure” instead of “hypertension” or “you don’t have the flu” instead of “your flu test was negative.”)

• Write down important instructions. Easier to remember stuff later.

• Show models or draw pictures. Seeing helps remembering.

• Limit the information to 1-3 important points. Repeat important points.

• Use the teach-back or show-me technique. It is evidence-based and confirms that you understand by repeating back the doctor’s instructions in your own words.

• Help promote a shame-free environment. Get comfortable asking questions. Get help from others (family or friends) to promote understanding. Be prepared.

This is an excellent start toward being healthy for the upcoming holidays, the flu season and wellness for the New Year! Get health literacy working for you! Be health akamai! Be safe! Be your best!

Winifred Tamura-Lis has worked in industry, research, teaching and nursing. She is board-certified in gerontological nursing and is also a certified Tai chi for arthritis instructor and a volunteer for local health organizations.

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