Get Healthy: Health literacy is everyone’s responsibility |

Get Healthy: Health literacy is everyone’s responsibility

Pam Graber
For the Nevada Appeal

Q: What is health literacy?

A: Health literacy is a buzz-word that refers to people’s knowledge about health matters. It is defined 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.”

Being health literate is important because it means you are knowledgeable and knowledge is power. Health literacy leads to better health outcomes for you and your family. If you are well-informed on health issues, you can make sounder decisions concerning your health.



According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, diminished health literacy can affect our ability to:

• fill out complex forms

• locate providers and services

• share personal information such as health history

• manage a chronic disease; take care of yourself

On the other hand, having good health communication skills could save you a lot of money. Reports vary, but a conservative estimate of the cost of low health literacy is $73 billion annually in unnecessary doctor visits, hospitalizations and longer hospital stays. Imagine $73 billion worth of avoidable medical expenses. Did any of it come out of your wallet?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tells us that people with limited health literacy skills are more likely to:

• Skip important prevention such as mammograms, Pap smears and flu shots

• Enter the healthcare system sicker than those with adequate literacy skills

• Are more likely to have chronic conditions and are less able to manage them effectively

• Make greater use of services that treat rather than prevent disease

• Exhibit higher rates of hospitalization and emergency services


Health literacy is something we need every day. Consider these routine communication events in which health literacy is needed:

• Reading the nutrition panel on a food label

• Discussing your prescription with the pharmacist

• Selecting an over-the-counter medication

• Consulting with your doctor, nurse, dentist, etc.

• Describing symptoms to a healthcare professional

• Reading lab results

• Reading articles about health

• Researching available healthcare services

• Watching a television program about a health topic

• Going online regarding healthcare

• Listening to news about a health topic

The items on this list may seem routine to many people. Yet the American Medical Association reports that 46 percent of American adults are functionally illiterate in dealing with the healthcare system. It is worse among the elderly and patients who report overall poor health. Thus, according to “Nevada Connections,” a publication of Community College of Southern Nevada, the population most in need is least able to read and understand information needed to function as a patient.


Health literacy begins with general literacy, the ability to read and write. Approximately 16 percent of Nevadans and 13 percent of Carson City residents struggle with general literacy. Fortunately in our area, the Carson City Literacy Volunteers, a nonprofit organization, make it possible for interested persons to learn to read.


We consumers owe it to ourselves to “obtain, process and understand” basic health information, but healthcare providers also have a role. Cynthia Baur, PhD from the National center for Health Marketing, urges professionals to stop assuming that patients and consumers can meet the expectations and demands placed on them by the health care system. Physicians must hone their communication skills to deal with patient literacy challenges. The public needs easy-to-use health messages. Fortunately, improvements in health literacy practice are increasing, bringing more usable health information and services. The result will protect and promote good health for everyone.


Each of us can play a role in increasing health literacy. Here’s what you can do:

• Everyone should be on the alert for people who may need help with reading and writing. If you know someone who falls into this category, gently refer them to Carson City Literacy Volunteers. Literacy Volunteers are adept at teaching literacy skills and additionally, they are always looking for new people to train as tutors. The person to call is Jan at 885-1010.

• If you are a healthcare provider or communicator, the onus is on you to speak the language of your audience. This means knowing your patients’ strengths and limitations, and doing all you can to assure your messages are understood.

• If you are a consumer, stay informed by reading, inquiring, attending seminars, and watching health news programs. During appointments, listen closely and ask questions until you understand. Ask a trusted healthcare professional which medical websites are valid and then use them. An excellent resource, the Plain Language Thesaurus for Health Communications, was assembled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is available online for free download, and is an excellent listing of plain language equivalents to medical terms, phrases and references that healthcare professionals often use.

More advice for health literacy: Keep reading this column. Public health is an important topic and we bring you a new article each week.


WHO: Carson City Health and Human Services

WHERE: 900 East Long Street, Carson City

CALL: 775-887-2190

Hours: 9 a.m. -4 p.m., by appointment, Monday-Wednesday and Friday

Immunization Day: 8:30-11:30 a.m.; 1-4:30 p.m. Thursdays. No appointment needed.

FLU SHOTS: Flu injections for $20 and nasal mist for $25. No appointment is necessary.

WEB: and on Facebook

• Pam Graber is the public information officer for Carson City Health and Human Services. She cam be reached at 775-283-7906 or