You don't know what you don't know. The truth of that statement
is more than a little disconcerting. Some say that ignorance is
bliss, and maybe in some cases it is best to go about your day
But there is no blissfully unaware when it comes to health. As a
health communicator for more than 15 years, I've made a career out
of telling people what they need to know about health and the
health care system.
So that's why, once again, I find myself penning a blog post
Literacy Month about the importance of addressing the health
literacy issues that abound in this country. Health
literacy, which is defined as the capacity to obtain, process,
and understand basic health information and services needed to make
appropriate health decisions, remains a critical issue.
This year's theme for Health Literacy Month is "Be a Health
Literacy Hero." According to the Health Literacy Month
website, the 2015 theme is "about taking action and finding ways to
improve health communication." The site touts Health Literacy
Heroes as "individuals, teams, or organizations who not only
identify health literacy problems but also act to solve them."
So that got me thinking. What more can we do to help solve
health literacy problems?
Similarly to how you don't know what you don't know, you can't
"unknow" what you know, which makes the job of a health
communicator pretty challenging at times. Once you've been working
in or around the health care industry for a significant period of
time, you inevitably amass a certain amount of health care
knowledge. You learn the lingo, and you learn how procedures work
and how various diseases function in the body. You have to
understand these things to be an effective communicator.
But once you have this knowledge in your head, it's often hard
to remember how little most people actually know about health care.
According to the National Assessment of
Adult Literacy, approximately 36 percent of adults in the
United States have limited health literacy, andonly 12 percent of
the U.S. population has proficient health literacy. That's an awful
lot of people struggling to understand basic health information.
It's our job to bridge that gap. Here are some quick tips to get
- Pretend that you don't know what youdoknow. Step outside of
your head and convince yourself that you know nothing about what it
is you're writing.
- Assume that you need to explain everything (including spelling
out acronyms and providing definitions).
- Break down your writing by sentence. Is each sentence clear?
Can the sentence stand on its own? Are you asking the reader to
make leaps in logic?
- Choose your words carefully. Sometimes you'll need to cut down
on words, but sometimes you'll need to add words to properly
These tips won't fix the problem of low health literacy levels
overnight, but it will get you on the right page-not just during
Health Literacy Monty but all the time.
This post is appearing simultaneously at the Healthyist and