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Health literacy: do we have the mantra right? (Part 1 of 2)

Health literacy: do we have the mantra right? (Part 1 of 2)

The Mantra

“Health literacy is increasing; consumers are becoming more sophisticated.”

This statement supports the textbook definition of health literacy: the ability to obtain and use health information and services. Unfortunately, patients’ motivation to (1) cultivate and (2) utilize that capacity is often missing from both the definition and reality.

In what other consumer behavior would we overlook the fact that action requires both motivation and capacity? Walk into any car dealership and you’ll see how quickly the salesperson assesses your motivation, as distinguished from your capacity to act!

The Gap

Unlike literacy in general, which has clear utility in daily life, there are significant disincentives for health literacy, e.g. the potential consequences of a bad choice, the effort of making it, etc. It is also relatively easy to choose not to exercise health literacy, whereas it would be difficult to choose not to read more generally. Moreover, a plethora of choices is a natural rationale for denial and shutting down.

We’ve all experienced some version of health care hell, in which decisions:

o Had to be made while in physical and/or emotional pain

o Were only supported by information that was either over-simplified, or in a foreign language

o Were clearly a “choice between evils” and/or offered less than even odds of the most favorable outcome

Thus, choice is often less about empowerment (the movement to redefine CDHC as “patient-empowered care” notwithstanding) than necessity and hope. Everyone who seeks to influence health behavior should consider daily that information-seeking, care-seeking and self-treatment each carries significant emotional, physical and economic (including opportunity) costs. Though making one’s own decisions with appropriate support may be better than the alternatives, it is not the pain-free, no-muss event too often portrayed.

So the circular incentive presented for exercising health literacy (“take charge of your health”) may be less than persuasive when it comes to action. For many, including the uninsured, that directive entails time and/or money they don’t think they have, and/or appears to be a code word for increasing OOP costs.

With great power comes great responsibility. Health literacy can increase both, yet, often, neither is desired.

Next, some thoughts on alleviating the huge burden of health decision-making. Please leave a comment (with a URL if appropriate) to let everyone know what your organization is thinking and doing, as well.

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