“Be careful about reading health books. You might die of a misprint.” – Mark Twain
‘Health literacy’ refers to “accessing, understanding and using information to make health decisions”, according to the World Health Organization. It affects consumers’ ability to search for health information, engage in healthy behaviors, follow the advice of medical personnel and heed public health alerts.
Why does this matter? There is an strong link between health literacy and health outcomes. Furthermore, only 12% of Americans have proficient health literacy skills, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.
What can employers do to help their employees improve health literacy? Employers can offer hands-on training specific to improving health literacy skills, such as Internet health information search, reading a vaccination table and understanding a drug label. Ideas for such training may include brown bag lunch sessions or programs offered by insurance plans. A study by Pomerantz et al. to be published in Health Promotion Practice in 2010 (and published ahead of time online), shows that hands-on workshops improved participants’ ability to use the Internet for finding credible health information. Employers can also target health literacy initiatives toward especially vulnerable employees who may already have chronic conditions and/or low education levels, in general.
What is currently being done? Healthy People 2010, our Nation’s prevention framework, includes a new focus area, Health Communication, with one of its objectives being health literacy. Also, the U.S. Surgeon General has indicated the importance of improving health literacy and has held scientific sessions toward this objective. The concept is still relatively new (about a decade old); I believe we will see a greater focus on health literacy in the future as researchers and practitioners test and disseminate effective strategies for improving health literacy.