National Minority Health Month: Better Health Through Better UnderstandingPosted on by
When I was in dental school, my classmates and I learned to practice dentistry in a big clinic arranged in cubicles. A shared countertop separated back-to-back cubicles. Above the counter hung a set of cabinets. This afforded some privacy with our patients but not much.
During one of our early days in the clinic, after looking at a patient’s x-rays, I said to her, “You have a large carious lesion on tooth number 30. It needs an M.O.D. amalgam.”
The patient responded, “Huh?”
The classmate with whom I shared a counter stuck his head in the space below the cabinets and said, “Ma’am, you have a big cavity in a lower right back tooth. You need a big filling.”
The patient responded with “Thank you” and a smile of understanding.
That was my first lesson in health literacy. I didn’t know the term health literacy at the time, but I learned that I needed to communicate with my patients in language that they could understand.
What Is Health Literacy?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines personal health literacy as the degree to which individuals can find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others. HHS defines organizational health literacy as the degree to which organizations equitably enable people to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
In Healthy People 2030, HHS indicates that limited personal health literacy is a social risk, one associated with worse health care and health outcomes. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, people with limited health literacy are more likely to identify themselves as members of racial or ethnic minority groups. CDC has indicated that these populations are disproportionately affected by systemic and structural factors.
HHS also says that “organizational health literacy is a social determinant of health. Living in communities served by health care organizations that lack organizational health literacy can affect the quality of health care delivered and, consequently, health outcomes. People…[living near] organizations with limited health literacy may be more likely to suffer from miscommunication and have difficulty accessing services.”
Health Literacy Promotes Health Equity
Health literacy promotes health equity by making life-saving health information accessible to all populations. Healthcare systems, public health organizations, and the people they employ have a responsibility to make their information easy for all their audiences to find, understand, and use.
Organizational health literacy best practices include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Use plain language. Use words familiar to your audience. Avoid jargon and technical terms. If you must use a technical term, define it the first time you use it. Also keep in mind that the same word can mean different things to different people. For example, to a public health professional, transmission might mean the spread of disease, but to the lay public, it might mean a part of a car. Say “spread of disease” instead of “disease transmission.”
- Use participatory design and message testing. You’re more likely to achieve greater acceptance of your health communication materials when you include members of your intended audience in the design and development and testing of your messages.
- Collaborate with faith-based and community organizations that serve your intended audience. Their staff can help you recruit people for participatory design and message testing. Their staff can also serve as trusted messengers of your information.
What CDC Is Doing
In 2021, CDC declared racism a serious public health threat. CDC launched its Racism and Health portal to serve as a hub for its activities, promote a public discourse on how racism negatively affects health, and communicate potential solutions. Subsequently, the agency established an internal initiative, CORE, to integrate health equity into the fabric of our work.
CDC recognizes the cross-cutting functions of health equity and health literacy. To better communicate with populations with low health literacy, CDC is creating and testing information-development tools, conducting workforce training in plain language and clear communication, and developing collaboration processes where the agency’s scientists and health communicators work together from the beginning of product development.
Health Literacy and Health Equity Resources
You may find the following resources helpful when developing health information for racial and ethnic minority communities or audiences with low health literacy:
- Everyday Words for Public Health Communication. Search for public health terms and find plain language alternatives.
- Health Literacy. A CDC website for health communicators, public health professionals, and community leaders who seek information and tools on health literacy research, practice, and evaluation.
- Health Equity Guiding Principles for Inclusive Communication. Principles and resources to help public health professionals and communicators ensure their products adapt to the specific cultural, linguistic, environmental, and historical situation of each population of focus.
Tell us how you use health literacy to advance health equity during National Minority Health Month and every day.