Health Words – Do You Know What They Mean?

Health care folks — doctors, nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, physical therapists, health educators and writers — use special words. You may know what their words mean or you may not. Not knowing what these words mean could be harmful to your health. This lack of understanding, or health literacy, is a big problem in the US, and the numbers are upsetting.A National Adult Literacy Survey found that 44 million Americans are health illiterate — they don’t understand health words. According to the Center for Health Care Strategies, 66% of Americans, 60 years old and older, have poor health literacy skills. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services says emergency room patients who lack health literacy skills are twice as likely to be hospitalized.The American Medical Association (AMA) found that 90 million Americans do not understand what their doctor tells them. Worse, 42 percent of Americans do not understand the words on prescription medicine bottles. So you can see why the AMA and the AMA Alliance are working together to improve health literacy. What is it?The AMA Council of Scientific Affairs defines health literacy as “the ability to read and comprehend prescription bottles, appointment slips, and the other essential health-related materials required to successfully function as a patient.” In other words, you can read, understand, and use health information.Even if you know lots of health words there are probably some you do not know, words that affect your health. What can you do? The Partnership for Clear Health Communication says you should ask three key questions:1. What is my main problem?2. What do I need to do?3 Why is important for me to do this?Do not be afraid to ask more questions if you do not understand your health problem or treatment plan.
You may also request a brochure, pamphlet, reminder card, or diagram. Your medical center may have a medical library and you may find additional information there. Take advantage of the free courses offered by the center.Sign up for a course about fixing heart healthy meals, managing pain, using sports equipment safely, breast self-examination, preparing for surgery, and life after major surgery. Be cautious about health information posted on the Internet. You will find a wealth of information there, but make sure the information is reliable before you use it. Who is providing this information? What is their reputation? Can you find reviews of the website?The AMA and AMA Alliance are training health professionals and volunteers in health literacy. Your doctor may ask you to repeat directions, for example. He or she is not doing this to make you feel bad, your doctor is doing this to make sure things were explained right. Your doctor may give you a chart indicating when you should take your medicine.Being health literate will help you manage your health and prolong your life.Copyright 2007 by Harriet Hodgson