As public health officials work to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, they also face a secondary challenge: communicating to the public that the available vaccines are safe and effective. This highlights the importance of health literacy.
Health literacy refers to an individual's ability to access and understand health information in order to make effective healthcare decisions. Healthcare providers take health literacy seriously, because patients who are well-informed are more likely to have better outcomes. For example, if someone is unaware that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, they may delay their vaccination, putting their health at risk.
To be health literate, people need access to accurate health information, and the information has to be presented in a way that they understand. Inadequate health literacy is associated with poor self-care, inappropriate use of emergency services, higher rates of hospitalization, and increased healthcare costs.
In a healthcare setting, the whole team is responsible for improving health literacy. For example, a doctor may use a plastic model as a visual reference as they explain a health issue to a patient. A nurse may go over discharge instructions before a patient leaves the ER.
3 Ways a Health Advisor Can Help with Health Literacy
- A health advisor has a trusted and ongoing relationship with the patient. Because a health advisor is familiar with the patient’s medical history, they are able to provide personalized information. Based on a patient’s history, the health advisor can tell the patient when the vaccine will be available to them, how they can access it, and if they have any special concerns that might affect the vaccination administration.
- A health advisor prioritizes patient education. A health advisor often has time to spend with a patient answering questions and explaining medical terminology. A health advisor will make sure the patient understands the provider’s instructions and offer guidance on next steps. For example, patients with chronic illnesses are often discharged with instructions for home care, but a 2006 study found that 36% of adults have only basic or below-basic health literacy skills. For patients managing chronic illnesses at home, instructions can be complicated and may feel overwhelming.
- A health advisor sees the big picture. Health advisors work with a patient's entire medical team, including family members, and can provide a holistic perspective on the patient’s care. A health advisor is able to understand and discuss complex healthcare issues, and make sure everyone on your care team has the information they need. Health advisors understand the medical jargon used by healthcare providers, and they also have the ability to explain things to patients and their family members in plain English.