You can have 50 tabs with different health and medical websites open in front of you, but if you don’t have the background knowledge to understand what you’re reading, you’re not likely to get the information you need.
Health literacy is an essential skill: When you see a doctor or have a procedure done, understanding health insurance is a must. When you get a new prescription, you have to be able to keep track of its side effects and interactions with other medications. And when you wake up sick and Google your symptoms, it’s important to be able to take in the medical jargon and scientific concepts and use them to improve your health.
What Is Health Literacy?
Health literacy is much more than just knowing general medical terms. The average adult might be able to tell you that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell and name at least a few bones, but knowing those things won’t help you actually become healthier.
To be truly health literate, you need to be able to understand the health information that applies to you and know how to use that information to make decisions about your health. This includes everything from understanding care instructions from your doctor and knowing when you should seek preventive care to communicating with health insurance providers about treatments. Without health literacy, it becomes difficult to address health concerns in a timely and efficient manner, which can quickly put your health at risk.
Why Do So Many People Struggle With Health Literacy?
If you’re finding health literacy difficult to manage, you’re not alone. Health literacy involves many overlapping skills, such as communication, data analysis and numeracy, and while mastering all of these areas can be a lot to manage, having a weakness in one of them can lead to trouble down the road. If you know that you need a treatment but aren’t confident in figuring out your cost of care options and don’t know who to ask, you risk losing out on some serious cash. On the other hand, if you know how much you can afford to spend on health insurance but have gaps in your knowledge of your own personal health, then you might struggle to find adequate coverage.
What it means to be health literate is also constantly changing. In some cases, what everyone “knew to be true” about staying healthy 50 years ago is quite different now. If you follow the headlines, even what foods are good for you seem to change faster than anyone can keep up with. Discarding outdated health information — without substituting in trends and fad diets — is easier said than done.
How Do You Become More Health Literate?
Luckily, there are straightforward strategies for getting ahead on understanding your health. People lacking health literacy often learn the most when they’re actively experiencing a health issue — but that’s far from an ideal situation. Becoming more health literate can start right now.
Don’t worry, the first step on the path to health literacy doesn’t involve memorizing your high school biology textbook — just a few minutes of quiet reflection. What health issues do you know you have to keep an eye on, whether because you’re facing them currently or because you have a family history of them? Ask yourself whether you’ve ever really sat down and put effort into understanding health insurance — and, more specifically, what your plan covers?
Once you’ve established your weak spots, it’s time to study up. Your insurer is a great place to start — their online resources should have a summary of your benefits and coverage, which will explain the costs of different types of care and what’s included in your benefits. If you have a full-coverage health plan, it should cover at least one preventive visit per year, which will connect you with another of your best resources for boosting your health literacy. Your doctor can not only help you address ways to be health-conscious but explain complicated health topics that may otherwise be difficult to understand. In some ways, being health literate is just being able to direct the right questions to the right authorities.
Becoming confident about your health literacy isn’t going to happen overnight, but it doesn’t take much research to start noticing where you can make improvements. After just a little time spent exploring your health insurance plan, you’ll have enough working knowledge to understand, for instance, how a high-deductible health plan can be paired with a health savings account, a tax-advantaged account that allows you to save money for medical costs. You’ll also begin to see if there any gaps in your coverage that could be filled with a supplemental plan, which can cover specific ailments and medical issues that may not otherwise be fully covered by a typical plan.
Health literacy lays the groundwork for getting a grip on your health, saving money and having a better health care experience — it just takes a little work to get there.