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October is Health Literacy Awareness Month

Health literacy- what is it and what is its impact? Health literacy is the degree to which one has the ability to get, process, and understand health information. Health literacy has a direct impact on both individual and collective/community health, as well as health care costs, to all individuals and entities involved. One must be able to do something with the health information they receive in order to live a healthy life. For example: Your doctor says to you, " Your bad cholesterol is too high. Cut back on saturated and unhealthy fats in your diet. Exercise is another way to help lower your cholesterol." This exchange leaves many questions, that the individual may not feel comfortable asking, may not realize need to be asked, thinks of asking later, etc.

Some of these questions might be: What is bad cholesterol? Good cholesterol? What kinds of foods have saturated or unhealthy fats? What is an unhealthy fat? Health literacy is the ability to ask these questions, utilize resources to find the answers, and incorporate those answers to make healthier choices. It is also important to note that while literacy and health literacy are related, they are not the same. While 86% of the U.S. population is what is defined as literate (US Dept of Ed.,2013), only 12% of English-speaking adults in the country have health literacy skills that are acceptable (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2010). Meaning, there are only 12% of us who are English-speaking with the skills to consistently apply health information in a meaningful way on a day-to-day basis.

So what is the impact?

It is well documented that limited health literacy is a major factor in poor day-to-day health management, low use of primary and preventative services, and high rates of preventable hospital visits, admission, and readmission- which simply means our citizens are sicker. This translates to an estimated cost annually of $106-$236 billion dollars (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2010). This does not account for the future costs that will result from current patterns. Chronic diseases, which are largely preventable, also increase the annual cost of care for the individual. For a person without a chronic disease (most common are diabetes, heart disease, COPD/asthma, and stroke) estimates of healthcare costs range from $1,206- $2,500 a year. For an individual with diabetes, estimates range from $6,032-$13,000 (NACDD). This health care cost per individual and nationally is a result of poor health management and use of an inefficient variety of services. Along with the financial costs, the loss of time with family, from work, and leisure activities can not be quantified.

How to make a change

Ask questions of your health care providers. Write down and research new terms, conditions, procedures, or medications. Seek education about your risk factors for the development of chronic diseases and how to modify personal risk. The good news is, there's help out there. Let us know what aspect of your health you'd like to begin with, and we'll get you started on the road to better health literacy- and health!

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