What Does it Mean to be Health Literate?

October is Health Literacy month, when all kinds of individuals and institutions from libraries to hospitals to doctors and schools call attention to the problem of health literacy and try to promote solutions. Information about health is difficult for many people to understand and therefore to act upon. The internet is full of misinformation, and even trusted sources can be difficult to navigate or comprehend. This is exactly why DinnerTableDoctor came into being. Frequently family and friends feel comfortable enough to ask DTD for an explanation or clarification on a medical issue. Typically it’s a dinner conversation, and I learn so much while I’m eating that I started to share the information in this blog.

The number one advocate for our health is ourselves, but most of us didn’t spend years in medical school, so we rely on what we read and research, what we hear word-of-mouth, and what our doctors or other experts might tell us. Whether you’re facing a difficult medical decision, attempting to make sense of Covid, or simply trying to be as healthy as possible, it can be very difficult to weed through all of the information to make the best choices. Last night, during yet another quiet dinner with just the two of us (I really can’t wait for this pandemic to be over so you all can start inviting us to dinner!), I asked DTD what steps he thinks are crucial in order to be health literate.

Establish a relationship with a primary care doctor you trust. Your primary care doctor is your gateway to good health and should be able to answer your health-related questions and give you guidance, as well as direct you to specialists who can provide more detailed information when needed. Often your doctor just assumes you understand what she’s talking about because it’s second nature to her, so never be afraid to ask for her to simplify or clarify. Some patients love DTD because he gives EXTREMELY detailed explanations. I find this quality annoying at times, probably because he monopolizes all of our dinner conversations. I prefer he just tell me exactly what I’m supposed to do so I don’t have to think about it, unless he’s telling me to do something I don’t want to do, like eat less pasta! But I trust him and I trust my own doctor, so there are two trained professionals I can consult. (See my post “You Need and Deserve a Good Doctor.”)

Know your health history. Your doctor expects you to know what medications you’re on and what surgeries you’ve had and a slew of other information which will help her decide your best treatment plan. It is a great idea to have a one page health history with you – like a health resume. Don’t just hand your doctor 100 pages of information from your medical file, or expect her to have it memorized already. Instead condense all of your information on a page. Include surgeries or hospitalizations you’ve had, medications you’re currently taking as well as medications you have had a problem with in the past, family health history, allergies, and any other information you think she needs to know. Not sure if it was your spleen or kidney you had removed 30 years ago? Find out and write it down!

When doing your own research, choose credible sources. As I told you in “Lessons from Leukemia,” not all of the information you read online or even in print is true. It may be out of date or it may be downright false. Read credible sources like UpToDate and the Mayo Clinic, and be very careful because fake sites are becoming more common. You may think you’re looking at the American Cancer Society site, but one letter off in your search can lead you to a site that looks legitimate but shares false information. Check more than one source. The same goes for information your family members or friends share on Facebook. Check it out before you believe it and before you share it. There’s a TON of false information out there about Covid. Ask yourself who you trust more – someone in your book club or fantasy football team, or someone who spent years studying the topic at hand and now has an actual career in the field. Patients ask DTD about things they’ve read on Facebook all the time and he is more than happy to clarify or suggest credible sources.

Feel free to get a second or third opinion. It’s OK to question something your doctor tells you and it’s OK to ask for a second opinion. Knowledge is power and you need to collect as much as possible. Your doctor should not be offended and can actually lead you to someone else for another viewpoint. (See “Your Opinion Matters.”)

Follow up on what you have learned. You’ve collected information and talked to your doctor and you understand what you need to do. Now you have to follow through. You’re the only one who can make changes or decisions regarding your health. Your doctor gives guidance, but can’t force you to go get bloodwork, wear a mask, have a surgery, lose weight or take a medication. You are in charge.

Consider this month your opportunity to take control of your health and to become health literate. For more information about Health Literacy Month, go to https://healthliteracymonth.org. Also, remember you can always ask DinnerTableDoctor!

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