The Institute of Medicine defines health literacy as: "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions." In other words, health literacy is the ability to read, understand and act on health care information. It requires several skills that enable patients to act in a variety of ways, which include: understanding instructions on prescription bottles, making and keeping appointments, following directions from health care professionals and navigating an ever-changing, complex health care system.
A person's overall health and well-being can be significantly impacted by health literacy. "Poor health literacy is a stronger predictor of a person's health than age, income, employment status, education level and race," according to a 2007 report called "Health Literacy and Patient Safety: Help Patients Understand," conducted by the American Medical Association.
With so many changes in health care delivery, it is now more important than ever for patients to take an active role in developing strong health information skills. Health care professionals and patients need to work together to ensure effective communication and to improve the quality of health care.
One growing trend in medical practice is the use of the Internet and online communication. According to Sunita Mutha, MD, a Professor at the Center for the Health Professions, Division of General Internal Medicine, University of California, San Francisco: "Advances in communication and information technologies as well as growing demand by patients to meet more of their health care needs, will drive changes in medical practice."
More people are using the Internet than ever before. Research has shown that almost 75% of all U.S. adults use the Internet, and 61% have looked for medical information online. There are also gender differences in the way men and women use the Internet to obtain health information. According to the National Center for Health Statistics 2011 report entitled, "Use of the Internet for Health Information," women were more likely than men to have used the Internet for health information.
There are other differences too. Socio-demographic and socioeconomic factors were associated with adults who had used the Internet to look up medical information. According to the National Center for Health Statistics Report, "greater use of the Internet for health information in the past 12 months among adults was associated with being ages 25-44, non-Hispanic, white, employed, college educated, with income at or above 300% of the Federal Poverty Level, and having private insurance."
A solid foundation for health literacy relies on a patient's ability to gather, process and understand health information. For patients this could include using the Internet to look up health information, using email and/or texting to communicate with their doctors or pharmacies, and understanding an electronic medical record.
As the number of American adults using the Internet continues to expand, online communication and the Internet as a basis for health information become increasingly important. Ensuring equal access to online tools, instruction on how to use these modalities, and clear and thoughtful communication are all important to increasing health literacy and improving health care for patients everywhere.
Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR)