The Power of Knowledge

Education plays a vital role in our ability to understand and maintain our health as the more educated individuals have the knowledge and cognitive skills to make better-informed decisions pertaining to their health. In fact, greater educational attainment has been associated with health-promoting behaviors such as higher consumption of foods with greater nutritional value, engaging in regular physical activity, and refraining from risky behaviors including excessive alcohol consumption and smoking. Educational attainment is indeed a strong indicator of how informed we are about our health, but it is not the only indicator. Another prominent indicator lies in the realm of health literacy which despite being relatively simple, it is practice by a small amount of the population. 

What is Health Literacy?

Health literacy is 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” by the Institute of Medicine. It encompasses the ability navigate complex healthcare systems, locate health information, analyze risks and benefits, communicate effectively with healthcare providers, and evaluate information for credibility. Not only that, but those with lower levels of health literacy use more health care services, have a greater risk for hospitalization, and have a higher utilization of expensive services, such as emergency care and inpatient admissions.

According to a report by the American Medical Association, poor health literacy is a stronger predictor of a person's health than age, income, employment status, education level, and race. Unfortunately, only 12% of the US population has a proficient level of health literacy as 36% of adults in the United States have limited health literacy-22% have basic and 14% have below basic health literacy. Of the population, economically disadvantaged, minorities, and immigrant adults make up a larger portion of those with poor health literacy than other groups. (National Assessment of Adult Literacy)

The Institute of Medicine emphasizes that efforts to improve the quality of health, reduce costs of healthcare, and reduce health disparities cannot succeed without simultaneous improvements in health literacy. Improving health literacy requires effort in part from the government, healthcare professionals and hospitals, and educational institutions. How many universities offer classes on our complex healthcare system? As students we know all about the biology and chemistry of our bodies and drugs, but how many of us know about:

Health Insurance: insurance deductions, costs, how your own health insurance works, the different types of health insurance (ie. HMOs, PPOs, EPOs, POSs, HDHPs)?

Health Insurance programs available to economically disadvantaged populations? How these programs work or how to apply to these programs?

How to navigate the healthcare system?

Perhaps part of the reason for large health disparities in Detroit is a lack of education and a lack of health literacy. As members of this society and participants in the healthcare system, we must take initiative to improve health literacy. What can we do? We can partner with schools to improve the health literacy of future generations. We can hold classes with local organizations to inform adults about healthy living and health insurance options. The possibilities are endless.


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Institute of Medicine and Nielsen-Bohlman, L., Panzer, A. M., Kindig, D. A., http://www.nap.Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion

"National Network of Libraries of Medicine." Health Literacy. National Network of Libraries of Medicine, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.

Orlow, Michael. "Want to Improve Care Transitions? Health Literacy Needs to Be a Priority - MedCity News." MedCity News. N.p., 28 Oct. 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.