Healthy choices in your life begin with health literacy. You may have heard the term “health literacy” and wondered what it meant. Health literacy is an umbrella term that refers to the knowledge, learning, skills and attitudes a person uses to advocate for their own health. Knowing your level of health literacy—and how to improve it—matters because research shows that having higher levels is strongly associated with living a longer, healthier and more independent life. 

Why Health Literacy Matters

Higher levels of health literacy are associated with better health outcomes across the board. Proprietary research done by Health IQ shows high health literacy is correlated with a longer life and 36% lower risk of early death. This is partly because people with greater health literacy are more likely to access preventative care and routine vaccinations, take medications as indicated, interpret health related messages accurately and report feeling healthy or very healthy. People with higher levels of health literacy are also more likely to make healthy choices in day to day life, such as eating a nutritious diet and being physically active.

Having higher health literacy rates may also have economic advantages. Some companies—including Health IQ—now offer special rates to people with higher health literacy as research continues to show they use less healthcare resources, are hospitalized less and are less likely to require emergency care.

5 ways to improve your health literacy 

Health literacy requires knowledge from many topic areas, including the body, healthy behaviors, the workings of the health system and how to access reliable and relevant health related information. According to research from the U.S. Department of Education, only 12% of  English-speaking adults in the United States have proficient health literacy skills. Read on for ways to join the elite group of America’s most health literate.

1. Learn what sources you can trust

In the digital information age one of the most common barriers to health literacy is accessing accurate, reliable and actionable health information. In order to raise your health literacy when evaluating online health information consider who runs/owns the website, if the website is selling or prompting a “to good to be true” product or solution, when the information was posted and what the information is based on (scientific research or personal opinions?) While online resources can be useful for gathering general information, it’s also important to discuss your options with your healthcare provider before making healthy choices. 

2. Identify the problem and write down a plan

Identifying areas of weakness and ways to improve them is a key step toward improving overall health literacy. For example, if a person has never exercised regularly and is low in body knowledge, they might seek help from a friend or family member who works out regularly, research active older adults on the internet, hire a fitness coach or join an exercise group. If you’re having problems taking your medications on time you might ask your doctor for suggestions, search the internet for digital medication reminders or apps or ask a spouse or friend to help you manage the situation. Write down the problem as well as potential solutions and review regularly to evaluate if the plan is working. 

3. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions

People with high health literacy don’t leave the doctor’s office until they have all their questions answered and a thorough understanding of their plan of care. If you find yourself feeling shy, rushed, overly agreeable or embarrassed to ask questions, write down your questions in advance or bring a friend or family member to help advocate for you. Remember the squeaky wheel gets the best, most actionable information, so don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications until you completely understand your plan of care and how to follow your healthcare providers recommendations. 

4. Seek help in areas of weakness 

The most health literate people are lifelong learners who are willing to continue to challenge themselves with new knowledge and opportunities. They’re also willing to look at the areas of their health management that could be more effective and seek out potential solutions. Try talking to your doctor or a trusted friend about the areas of your health literacy that could be improved and brainstorm solutions together. Being proactive about problem solving is a key component in improving health literacy and overall health outcomes.

5. Know your preferred learning style

One of the easiest ways to quickly improve your health literacy is to ask your healthcare professional to present information in a way that’s easy for you to understand. If you like to have information in written form, request pamphlets or other literature, if you’re a visual learner find out if your provider offers videos, workshops or other forms of hands on instruction. If you learn best by doing, ask your healthcare professional to watch you perform or demonstrate a new skill. Don’t be afraid to ask to have recommendations presented in a way that works best for you. 

Taking Charge of Your Health Literacy

Your health literacy is based on your ability to take meaningful, effective action based on health care recommendations. This includes behaviors such as making healthy choices for more whole foods at the grocery store, or following-up with your doctor regarding test results. Improving your health literacy can greatly improve overall health outcomes and help you live a longer, healthier life. 

As the current healthcare system continues to increase in complexity health literacy is becoming more important than ever before. What steps are you taking to improve your health literacy?