Health Literacy 101

What would you do if your doctor said you have a bad case of synchronous diaphragmatic flutter and to make matters worse, a diagnosis of sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia?

What if the doc is telling you that you need medication or a surgery for both of these diagnosis?  Would you just nod your head, go along with what the doctor is telling you, and hope for the best?  Or would you ask them to please explain what these diagnosis are?

Put yourself in the exam room and how would you respond? This scenario is a prime example of how being health literate is important. Health literacy is defined as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. Sometimes the health professionals get caught up in the jargon of their job and use the same wording when conveying messages to the general public.

Miscommunication in the health industry can be the difference between the correct and incorrect medication, or a proper diagnosis and health complications. All of which can be avoided with proper communication from all parties involved. It is the job of the medical professional to convey their messages clearly and it is the job of the patient to ask questions and speak up when necessary.



Low Health Literacy is more prevalent in the following populations:

  • Older adults
  • Minority groups
  • Those who have a lower socioeconomic status
  • Medically under-served individuals


The Stats

The CDC has reported to following statistics in regards to health literacy and older adults:

  • 71% of adults older than age 60 had difficulty in using print materials
  • 80% had difficulty using documents such as forms or charts
  • 68% had difficulty with interpreting numbers and doing calculations
  • It is estimated that the cost of low health literacy to the U.S. economy is between $106 billion to $238 billion annually.


Why is health literacy a problem?

From the CDC: Older adults use more medical services and acquire more chronic illnesses than other population segments. By 2030, 71.5 million adults aged 65 years of age or older will be living in the United States. Limited health literacy costs the healthcare system money and results in higher than necessary morbidity and mortality. Individuals with low health literacy may have trouble with some or all of the following:

  • Finding/locating providers and services
  • Filling out complex health forms
  • Sharing medical history with providers
  • Seeking and understanding the benefits of preventative care
  • Managing chronic health conditions
  • Understanding the directions of a medication


Think about this…

Yes, we may not know what synchronous diaphragmatic flutter and sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia is exactly, but all it takes to understand this terminology is to ask your doctor. Maybe there are more common phrases that can be used to better understand what is going on. A similar example can be evident in your medications.

Some of you may have multiple medications you are taking daily. Do you know exactly what each of them does or are you swallowing these pills because your doctor told you to? If your medication says to take twice daily, when exactly should you take them (morning & evening, breakfast & dinner, etc.)? Are there any long term effects to you taking your medications? All of this goes back to your individual health literacy. Please note that by no means should you discontinue any medications you are currently taking because of this article. The goal of this article is to be increase your awareness of what you are taking and why you are taking it.


Some Tips

In reality, all of this can be avoided! We all need to do our part in facilitating better communication so that both parties can have a clear understanding.

  • Educate yourselves! – If you have been given a diagnosis, do some research, look up what is involved, treatment, complications etc. However, make sure the resource is credible (not Wikipedia, WebMD, etc.).
  • Ask questions! – You or your insurance company is paying to see a professional about your health concerns. They are performing a service because of your compensation. Don’t feel frightened to ask questions throughout your appointment. Feel free to write a few questions down before you see your doctor to make sure they get answered.
  • Your pharmacist is there to help you! – Unsure about your medications? Believe it or not when you pick up a prescription, normally you sign that you accept/decline education about your medication from your pharmacist. This is your time to ask questions and express any concerns! They are the experts for medications and may even have better insight than your primary doctor in some cases!
  • Be honest – The doctor cannot read your mind. It is up to you as the patient to tell the doctor your worries and concerns. Providing detailed information allows the doctor or medical professional get the full picture of your overall well-being and relay a more communicable message back to you.


Also, know that health literacy is important on the medical professional side too (myself included)! Health professionals need to stay up to date on how to best convey their health messages to the general public.

By the way, synchronous diaphragmatic flutter is also known as the common hiccups, and sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia is a brain freeze (ya know, the painful feeling in your head when you eat ice cream too fast). I’d hope that you would make the smart decision if your doctor told you that surgery would be necessary or request serious medical attention for both of these diagnosis.

Stay well!

Ryan Meisel, Wellness Manager