By Mayra Sofia Crespo Bellido
“I drink tea of guanábana leaves when I can’t make it to my chemotherapy sessions. Did you know Miss, that eating guanábana is just as good as 10 chemotherapy sessions?” I was shocked when a patient shared this piece of information with me during a nutritional assessment interview. Luckily, my preceptor stepped in and educated the patient and his spouse on the risks of completely substituting traditional medicine with alternative treatments that are not evidence-based. He argued with my professor. In that moment it sunk in how dangerous health illiteracy can be.
Health literacy has been defined 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.” It involves different factors such as: health knowledge, listening, speaking, arithmetical, writing, and reading skills, and cultural competencies of health professionals as well as other systemic factors.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 9 out of 10 adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease. Nearly 14% of adults (30 million people) have ‘below basic’ health literacy. These adults were more likely to report their health as poor (42%) and are more likely to lack health insurance (28%) than adults with Proficient health literacy. These patients are more likely not to vocalize their concerns and questions as well as being less active participants in their care because of the stigma associated with being health illiterate. Being health illiterate is a stronger predictor of health than socioeconomic status, education, ethnicity, or race.
Nutrition professionals in all areas face health illiteracy on a day-to-day basis. During my dietetic internship training, I have a difficult time gathering accurate information from patients during the nutritional assessment in the clinical setting, particularly when assigned a high patient load. That initial interaction may be somewhat compromised by the fact that most patients do not know how to express nutritional concerns and time is too constricted to dig deep into the answers provided. Same goes to other areas of practice: nutrition researchers dealing with tailoring informed consent forms to the level of health literacy of their population of interest or foodservice managers explaining to their employees the reasons to follow HACCP procedures to ensure food safety. Even public health nutrition professionals may face it while trying to advocate in favor of measures such as the taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages.
Healthy People 2020 includes the specific objective to increase health literacy under the topic of Health Communication and Health Information Technology. In this era health and nutrition information is produced and distributed by individuals and organizations with various agendas. It is critical that people have the skills to navigate this sea of information without feeling overwhelmed by nutrition confusion. Guiding people through this process and giving them strategies to find and understand accurate food and nutrition information could allow for a new sense of empowerment that could position dietitians, nutritionists and other nutrition professionals as the go-to source in these matters for people who have put their trust elsewhere to get the information.
The World Health Organization has determined improving health literacy has implications in a greater scope than individual decision-making processes with the following quote:
“[…] Health Literacy goes beyond a narrow concept of health education and individual behavior-oriented communication, and addresses the environmental, political and social factors that determine health. Health education, in this more comprehensive understanding, aims to influence not only individual lifestyle decisions, but also raises awareness of the determinants of health, and encourages individual and collective actions which may lead to a modification of these determinants. Health education is achieved therefore, through methods that go beyond information diffusion and entail interaction, participation and critical analysis. Such health education leads to health literacy, leading to personal and social benefit, such as by enabling effective community action, and by contributing to the development of social capital.”
Such an impact could guide the food and nutrition policy measures that are needed to ensure the population’s health by activism that intends to change social determinants of health. Wow!
There is a vast amount of literature in health literacy, yet there is still some room for improvement in the scope of practice. Public health and community nutrition professionals could make use of the health care system’s shift from acute care towards preventive care and health promotion to justify projects that improve basic health literacy skills. Helping people understand the purpose of health and nutrition behavior change, increasing self-efficacy and helping individuals make decisions accordingly is vital.
Department of Health and Human Services (US), Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Health literacy online: A guide to writing and designing easy-to-use health web sites.
Health Communication and Health Information Technology- https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/health-communication-and-health-information-technology
Health literacy and health behaviour- https://www.who.int/healthpromotion/about/en/
Carbone E., Zoellener, J. (2012) Nutrition and Health Literacy: A Systematic Review to Inform Nutrition Research and Practice. J Acad Nutr Diet. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2011.08.042