Fear of covid-19 is exposing a lack of health literacy in this country that is not new. The confusion is amplified during a health emergency, however, by half-truths swirling in social media and misinformed statements by people in the public eye.
One in five people struggle with health information, says Michael S. Wolf, director of the Center for Applied Health Research on Aging at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
“It’s easy to misunderstand [medical information],” says Wolf, who is also founding director of the medical school’s Health Literacy and Learning Program. Some will be too ashamed to say so while others won’t realize they missed a critical detail.
The people most likely to have low health literacy include those dying in greater numbers from covid-19: older adults, racial and ethnic minorities, nonnative English speakers, and people with low income and education levels.
“Covid has brought to fore the vast inequities in society,” says cardiologist Jared W. Magnani, associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. If you don’t understand words such as “immunocompromised” or “comorbidity,” for instance, you miss cautionary information that could save your life.
But low health literacy cuts across all demographics, stresses Alison Caballero, director of the Center for Health Literacy at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. “Given the right headache or stress about a sick child, [gaps in comprehension] can happen to anyone. When you don’t feel well, you don’t think as clearly.”
Health literacy is not about reading skills or having a college degree. It means you know how to ask a doctor the right questions, read a food label, understand what you’re signing on a consent form, and have the numeric ability to analyze relative risks when making treatment decisions.
“None of this is intuitive,” Wolf says.
Magnani has patients who don’t believe they have high blood pressure because their lives aren’t stressful. Or respond with “Great news!” when he tells them a test result was “positive.” He was lead author of a statement from the American Heart Association about overcoming health literacy barriers to improve patient outcomes. LEARN MORE.