Friday, October 26, 2012

How you can improve your own health literacy

You are literate, but are you health literate? Do you know the difference between LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol? Can you make sense of your hospital bill? Do you know which health insurance policy offers you the best deal? Can you decipher your doctor’s medical gobbledygook? Do you know how to get a second opinion? Does your doctor respect you? Medicine is advancing in leaps and bounds, but are you equipped with the skill to take advantage of these innovations to live a longer, healthier and happier life ?

Health is a very personal issue; and you are given only one body - it is your duty to take the best care of it possible. While having an expert doctor by your side is very helpful, you cannot outsource this responsibility to someone else. While financial literacy can help you become wealthy, health literacy is even more important, because all the wealth in the world means nothing if you are not healthy. Healthcare is complicated and the health care system can be confusing, but the good news is that low health literacy is treatable and beatable and you can improve your ability to find and understand health and medical information.

To improve your health literacy:
•    Speak up and ask questions. Then, make sure you get and understand the answers. If you don't understand, ask the doctor or nurse for more information.
•    Slow down. Ask your doctor to speak slower and with simple words that avoid confusing medical jargon.
•    If photos or illustrations help you understand medical details or how your body works, ask for visual aids.
•    Repeat information back to your doctor or nurse. After he gives you directions, repeat those instructions in your own words. Simply say, "Let me see if I understand this." This gives you a chance to clarify information.
•    Bring all your medicines to your next doctor's visit. Ask your doctor to go over all of your drugs and supplements, including vitamins and herbal medicines.
•    Request someone to accompany you. This might be especially true when you expect to receive important information.
•    Let the doctor's office know you need an interpreter if you don't speak or understand English very well.
Be sure you receive written, detailed instructions for all prescriptions and all pertinent information discussed during medical visits. Ask for a copy of all lab and test results and your doctor’s dictated notes, so you can review the information at home at your own pace.

Learn to be curious and read a lot – this is the best way of sharpening your literacy skills.  The Internet can be a great source of health and medical information if you use it wisely.

If your need help in making sense of the medicalese in your lab reports or scan results, please use the free Medical Report Jargon Buster( You simply have to upload your medical reports to the website , and the jargon buster will provide a simple explanation of any medical term within the report.

Take your time. Online research can take longer than you would expect. If you search too quickly, you can end up with incorrect information. The information may be confusing initially, but it will become clearer over time as you polish your skills.

Use reliable websites. These are often ones that end in “.gov” for government, “.org” for nonprofit organizations, and “.edu” for medical schools and colleges. If you use a “.com” website, go to the “about” section to see if the sponsor has a financial stake in the information. An excellent starting point is

Rely on many sources. Check several trusted websites to see if the information is trustworthy.

The Internet is not your doctor: Talk to your doctor about any information you find online. If he or she doesn’t want to talk about what you’ve learned, go search for a new doctor.

Informing yourself is a worthwhile investment, and you do not have to become a hypochondriac to become well informed. Don’t underestimate your abilities – there are lots of valuable resources available. Bookmark reliable sites and invest in a medical dictionary and encyclopedia so you can decipher unfamiliar terms and put the information in the right context.  Discuss what you find with knowledgeable friends – they can help you resolve your doubts. Finally, try to teach someone else – this is the best way of learning !

Being health literate offers many benefits.
•    It promotes self-care, so you can do as much for yourself as possible.
•    It helps you to understand evidence-based guidelines, so that you can ask for the right medical treatment - no more and no less
•    It arms you with “Veto Power”, so you can say “No” to medical care you don’t need, thus preventing overtesting and unnecessary surgery.

When you fall ill, you hope to get the best medical care from their doctor. In a perfect world you'd have the perfect doctor who would have plenty of time, infinite wisdom, low fees, be totally  honest yet  compassionate,  have a  conveniently  located  clinic  and understand your emotional as well as medical problems – in short, one who treats you as a VIP! Since it's unlikely you are going to find this  doctor,  you're going to have to take active charge of your own medical care. 

Medicine, as both a science and art, often requires choices and there are no "right" answers - you need to make your own decisions - after all, it's your life. While you obviously have a vital interest in treatment decisions and outcomes, unfortunately you lack the medical knowledge and skill to be able to decide alone. This is where the concept of health literacy comes in, so you and your doctor can function as a team.

When you are a patient, you need to wear many hats, and health literacy will allow you to do so:

Medical information researcher: The more knowledgeable you are about your problem and its treatment, the better are your chances of  getting  the right treatment. Educate yourself - you need to become an informed participant in your medical care in order to ask the right questions and to participate in making decisions about your treatment.

Medical team manager:  You will have to find, evaluate, select, hire - and sometimes fire  - members of your medical team. As an enlightened patient, you need to remember that you are the one in charge of your body.

Treatment decision maker: You will have to decide which treatment to choose. Sometimes the choices are straightforward, but sometimes they can be very confusing. A good doctor will offer you all the options and help you to decide - but it is finally your right (and responsibility) to select which is right for you. You cannot afford to leave everything up to God - or up to the doctor either.

Medical record keeper. You must keep all your records - this can be very helpful if you need to change doctors or get a second opinion. Using a PHR ( can be very helpful - and even lifesaving in an emergency !

Financial Manager: Medical treatment can be very expensive these days - and you must be aware of the costs involved. Many patients are hesitant to talk to their doctor about money matters - but this reluctance can prove to be very expensive! 

Communicator: It is important that you be open and honest with your doctor. Ask questions, listen to the answers and take notes. Remember, the only stupid question is the one you don't ask - so don't hesitate to ask! And if you don't understand, the fault is not yours - it just means your doctor is not explaining well.

It’s true that sometimes the language which doctors use seems to be a foreign tongue and to become fluent in this, you will have to put in some effort. Think of it like learning a new language – it can take time, and is hard in the beginning, but becomes easier the more you learn as you starting making sense of its logic and patterns. It’s actually much easier than learning Sanskrit, because the script is the same , and many words are familiar. Paradoxically, the fact that many words are familiar can actually make it more difficult , because this increases the scope for misunderstanding. Thus, for a layman, acute usually means severe, whereas for a doctor, acute usually denotes an emergency. This can be confusing, but if you trust your abilities to learn, the efforts you put in will pay rich dividends, because your doctor’s respect for you will increase manifold !

Health literacy will help you during your medical journey – right from choosing your doctor; making the best use of his expertise; researching your options; understanding medical jargon; to taking care of yourself in hospital and during surgery. A health literate patients is a VIP patient - a very well informed patient  - and that’s that's the best kind of patient to be if you want to get VIP care!

Want to learn more ? HELP is organizing a conference on “ Putting Patients First Through Health Literacy  “. This will be on Sunday, 2nd December’12 at Nehru Center at 10.30a.m. to 1.p.m.  The website is

The conference will be followed by a health literacy workshop in the afternoon. Helen Osborne, President, Health Literacy, a world renowned  Consultant from US , will be delivering the keynote and conducting the workshop.  Her website is at

At this time, we will be releasing the book, Deciphering Medical Gobbledygook: Promoting Health Literacy to Put Patients First , authored by Dr Aniruddha Malpani and Juliette Siegfried.

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