Health Literacy in Health Information Technology

In 1999, the American Medical Association reported that poor health literacy is “a stronger predictor of a person’s health than age, income, employment status, education level, and race”. A profound statement which I believe still rings true. Health literacy is defined  by the department of Health and Human Services 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.” This is important considering that surveys show that up to 50% of patients walk out of their providers office not understanding what they were told are instruction about self management (orcamd.com). Let’s make it clear. Health literacy has nothing to do with your IQ. It is literacy as related to health information.

In the middle of “Health Information Technology” is the word “Information”. Information for whom? Information for all stake holders of the health system in a private and secure manner of course. My point is it is not just information for health professionals and labs and health information exchanges. In the old days we didn’t let the patient touch the chart. If you think back, it was really a strange time. I would stand in front of my patient shielding the chart from their view and closing it whenever they got too close. It didn’t make sense then and with all the policy change concerning patient rights it definitely makes no sense in this day and time.

HIT is all about information about the patient for the patient. The patient must be able to understand to a certain degree what is happening with their health in order to participate in their well being. Studies have shown that patients teaching patients in the community result in better retention of information than a health professional teaching a patient. This model is effective because of the cultural relationship and sensitivity which leads to a better understanding among the learners.

We should ask ourselves. If our patients are leaving our practices with little understanding of their illnesses, how does all this technology change things? The patient centered approach is more than giving an on time appointment, wowing the consumer with technology, and having them feel good walking out the door. We have to go a step further to assure that they understand what’s going on. A great deal of responsibility for health does rest with the patient. However, if we are to improve public health in this nation, the consumer must have assess to informal and formal culturally sensitive education opportunities. A health literate patient is an informed citizen concerning health. This consumer will be more likely to  1) have a better understanding of health policy, 2) be an informed voter to effect the necessary policy changes, 3) parent responsibly for the health of their children and, 4) self manage their illness with diet, exercise, lifestyle changes and compliance to their treatment plan. This literate consumer of health will be a more health conscious, involved, and less costly partner to the health care system.

2 comments Add your comment

Wayne Oliver - Healthcare Consultant

June 13th, 2012
10:50 am

Dr. Mack, you are right on target with this post. Health literacy is so vitally important … especially as we move toward an individually-centered model of care where the individual (patient) has roles and responsibilities like medication adherence and self monitoring (diabetes). Physicians and pharmacists are usually on the front line of patient edication but we need models where the entire healthcare team understands the importance of health literacy.

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