A Critical Challenge Among Health Challenges: Health Literacy

By Dennis Archambault

Literacy – the ability to understand language and concepts of safe and healthy living – is a challenge for around 50 percent of Detroiters. Health literacy, a subset of that, makes health delivery and personal health maintenance a much greater challenge than many have acknowledged until recently.

Helen Osborne, medical writer and author who created “The Blood Project,” was a major advocate for the creation of Health Literacy Month in October.

The process of “obtaining, processing and understanding basic health care information,” is as component of how health literacy is defined. But, of course, understanding language is an essential foundation for understanding concepts that support health. And that presumes that the individual is fluent in the English language.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Office of Minority Health addresses health literacy in a number ways. One program, Coverage to Care, looks at processes like “Navigate your coverage,” “Access to Care,” “Get Preventive Care,” “Manage Your Chronic Condition,” and “Resources for Partners and Providers.”

Health literacy is also about understanding how your body functions, and how it can function optimally to prevent disease and injury. This doesn’t require a degree in anatomy and physiology, but it does offer a challenge to explain body mechanics to people who may not have a grasp of medical terminology but may understand how things work. The “why” is a little different, in that people may not understand or believe in recommendations to do certain things or not do certain things to improve health – because they don’t understand concepts or trust the educator.

Attaining health literacy is a major goal of Healthy People 2030, which given the enormity of achieving literacy itself, is a goal that requires professional and volunteer resources in all sectors of the health system. An essential component is trust, which as we have learned through vaccine hesitancy, a person may understand what you’re trying to teach them, but they may not believe you.

We’re pleased to collaborate with Wayne County on a federal grant to improve health literacy around the COVID vaccine. As we enter the flu season, and with the threat of RSV still very real, educating the community around immunizations in general is one of many important topics in health literacy.

So, let’s give credit to the many professionals and volunteers working in the health literacy area and find ways we can incorporate that in whatever area of health care delivery we’re involved with.

Dennis Archambault is Vice President of Public Affairs for Authority Health.