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Health literacy - Understanding your health care

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Our health care system can be confusing and difficult for just about everyone, and yet it’s so important we know how to navigate it so that we can get the care we need, especially now amid the pandemic. I’m your host, Al Waller.

Today, Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute® is joining me on this episode of ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM to talk about health literacy, what it means, why it’s important, and how you can improve yours.

So Mihaela, let’s start at the beginning, what exactly is health literacy?

Mihaela Vincze

Good question, Al. Not a lot of people are aware about what health literacy is—or why a lack of it can create issues for them when trying to access quality care. Remembering back when I interned at a federally qualified health center, I learned that many people were not aware of the resources available to them.

For instance, many free health education classes were offered to patients, including courses on diabetes management and nutrition. These classes were intended to help them manage their chronic conditions, but they were underutilized simply due to a lack of awareness. It makes you wonder, how might the health and the lives of these patients have turned out differently, if they had received this vital information?

So to answer your question Al, health literacy is defined by the Healthy People 2030 program as “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”

Al Waller

Right, and for people who don’t have a scientific background, reading and interpreting medical jargon can sometimes be challenging. Also, when you don't understand what’s being prescribed to you, you can’t really take charge of your own health care and may even unwittingly do something that is counterproductive to your situation.

You mentioned that lack of health literacy can cause issues regarding access to care. Can you share more about how the two are related?

Mihaela Vincze

Absolutely. It’s essential that we build our health literacy because lacking this knowledge can lead to poor health outcomes and can lead to us missing important preventative tests, like mammograms or colonoscopies, or improperly taking our medicine.

Al Waller

Those are all important issues to consider when it comes to the “why” of educating individuals on how to interpret medical information. So, what are some easy ways to help build our health literacy to become a better patient and health advocate for ourselves?

Mihaela Vincze

You don’t need to buy a dictionary or become a medical jargon whiz to improve your health literacy. There are far simpler steps you can take. For starters, you can begin by asking lots of questions. If you don’t understand what your doctor is telling you, or you only understand parts of it, make sure to ask your doctor. When it comes to your health, there is no such thing as a dumb question and in this case, it may be even be lifesaving to make sure you’re getting accurate information.

Al Waller

Well, that sounds like a step in the right direction! What else do you suggest?

Mihaela Vincze

If you can’t think of any questions on the spot— I know I often do this— you can try repeating what your doctor tells you in your own words. You can begin by saying something like, “So just to make sure I’ve got this right… You said” and repeat back your version of your doctor’s instruction. This way, your doctor can clear up any misunderstandings right then and there.

Al Waller

That’s a great tactic. I’m sure many of us have at times felt overwhelmed when the doctor asks if we have any questions. As an aside and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken to jotting down notes/reminders to ask upfront to make sure I cover my bases.

Now, are there any other steps an individual can take to ensure they’re understanding what’s being presented?

Mihaela Vincze

Another great question, Al. Hospitals and clinics often have hand-outs or other materials that you can use to help you understand. For instance, my friend’s doctor recently gave her a very easy-to-understand guide for essential vitamins when she learned she had a few deficiencies. It was a cheat sheet with illustrations of foods she could eat to help her get her health in order. It was far less overwhelming than a chart featuring vitamins and their Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) values.

Al Waller

That’s a good point especially since everyone learns differently. Some are visual and learn best by looking at pictures or videos, some are auditory and learn by listening to someone talk.

And then, you have those that learn best by simply reading the information. At the end of the day, it’s good to ask for information and also mention the type of form that will be most useful for you.

Mihaela Vincze

Exactly. On top of this, if you need more guidance, you can also ask to work with a patient navigator—if one is available. A patient navigator is someone trained to help you coordinate your care—from accessing health services to treatment options to even finding clinical trials. These navigators are there to help make sure you get the care you need.

Al Waller

I must say Mihaela, these are strong suggestions for someone who wants to take more control and take charge over their health!

So now that we know it’s essential to be well-versed in health literacy to make informed health decisions, are there any other resources our listeners can check to improve their literacy?

Mihaela Vincze

To learn more about the Healthy People 2030 program, you can check out the Health Literacy in Healthy People 2030 page at health.gov. Also, Transamerica Institute offers information that can help you learn about health care coverage, mental health resources, and other related matters. We even offer a series of free cookbooks that provide healthier versions of favorite recipes and nutrition tips. Visit us at transamericainstitute.org and follow us on Twitter at @TI_insights to stay up to date with our latest releases. We also have a Facebook page.

Al Waller

Well Mihaela, thanks for sharing these insights with us. As always, it’s a pleasure having you on the show.

Listeners, you can find our podcast on WYPR’s Podcast Central and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org.

I’m your host Al Waller. Until the next time, stay safe, be well, and try to remember to take some steps to improve your health literacy.

This podcast is produced by Transamerica Institute, with assistance from WYPR.

ClearPath: Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about retirement security and the intersections of health and financial well-being.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.