Health Literacy | Understanding What Your Doctor Is Saying

Updated:Jul 29,2014

Health Literacy GraphicDo you avoid going to the doctor because you’re worried about what you might find out, you don’t like dealing with all those forms or because some of the medical terms can be confusing? If so, you’re not alone.

But understanding what your healthcare provider tells you and knowing what to do about it is essential for good health.

With improved health literacy, you can:

  • Improve your health.
  • Recognize risky behaviors.
  • Learn about the disease process.
  • Lower your healthcare costs.
  • Decrease your chances for hospitalization.
What is health literacy and how can you improve it?
Health literacy is the ability to read and understand information about your health and make decisions about it. Below-average health literacy is very common, especially if your access to health information and health care is limited, said Dr. David Baker, M.D., M.P.H., chief in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. But it’s not an indicator of intelligence.

Below-average health literacy can be the result of challenges like:
  • language barriers;
  • ability to read and understand medical numbers and terminology; and
  • issues that affect your ability to follow instructions.
You should be actively involved in your doctor’s appointment to help make decisions about your health and the best, most cost-effective treatment. But sometimes that’s easier said than done. Have you ever heard anything like this?

“No hypertension, glucose levels of some concern, triglycerides look okay, but your LDL is a bit high so I’m going to put you on statins and we’ll see how that goes. We want to schedule you for a biopsy sometime next week just to make sure that growth is nonmalignant.”

If you don’t understand, don’t be shy — keep asking questions! Be honest and ask for help filling out forms if you need it. Here’s a list of questions to help you get started:
  1. What condition do I have and what do I need to do about it?
  2. Why is this important to me? How will it affect my daily life and future health risks?
  3. How exactly do I take this medication?
  4. What are the possible side effects of this medication, and should I stop taking it if it happens?
  5. Can you help me understand the material you gave me?
  6. Is my condition reversible, preventable and/or treatable?
  7. Is there an alternative to the treatment suggested?
  8. How much will it cost?
  9. Are there other specialists I should see? Who should be involved in my care?
  10. What about diet?  What about physical activity? Is sex safe with this diagnosis? Are there any limitations I need to know about?

It’s easy to forget what you want to ask once you’re at the doctor’s office, so be sure and bring a list of questions that includes any medications or supplements that you’re taking.

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