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The Impact of Health Literacy

Kathleen Weissberg, OTD, OTR/L

March 29, 2019

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Question

What is health literacy and why is it important? 

Answer

Health literacy is the ability to read, compute, understand, and act on health information, to make informed decisions. It is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services that they need to make appropriate health decisions.

Health literacy is dependent on a number of different individual and systemic factors. It is the communication skills of laypersons and of professionals like ourselves. It is culture. It is our knowledge of health topics, and how we can communicate those appropriately to participants. It is the demands of healthcare and the public health systems, and the demands of the situation or the context in which the client is presented.

Health literacy affects an individual’s ability to navigate the healthcare system. Filling out healthcare forms, locating providers and services, and even understanding insurance are all affected by your health literacy. Health literacy impacts your ability to share personal information, such as health history, with providers and to engage in self-care and chronic-disease management. Additionally, understanding concepts like probability and risk, and even medication management, are all affected by your health literacy.

Health information can even overwhelm persons with advanced literacy skills. Medical science progresses rapidly, and what we may have learned about health or biology during our school years often becomes outdated or forgotten, or it might have been incomplete to begin with. Moreover, health information provided in a very stressful or unfamiliar situation, like we see in healthcare, is unlikely to be retained.

It is important to know that low health literacy is a global crisis that affects everyone and is a serious threat to the wellbeing of persons seeking medical care. With the increased diversity of the clients that we may work with, we see that our communication skills are less effective with people from backgrounds different from our own. 

That is why it is so important to address this issue and confront the facts head-on. Quite simply, the responsibility is ours as health care professionals to communicate in what we will call “plain language.” Without clear communication, we cannot expect people to adopt the healthy behaviors and the recommendations that we champion. When people receive accurate and easy-to-use information about a health issue, they are better able to take action to protect and promote their own health and wellness.

Please refer to the SpeechPathology.com course, Health Literacy: Effective Client Communication and Education, for more in-depth information on ways to provide clear and effective communication to ensure that clients understand the therapy services provided to them. 


kathleen weissberg

Kathleen Weissberg, OTD, OTR/L

Kathleen Weissberg, in her 25+ years of practice, has worked in long-term care as a researcher/educator and has established various programs in nursing facilities including palliative care and end of life care, incontinence management, falls management and dementia care and staging. She currently provides continuing education support to 6000 therapists nationwide as Director of Education for Select Rehabilitation.


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