Increase Your Health Literacy

October is Health Literacy Month and Medical Librarians Month. Rachel Helbing, health sciences librarian at the University of Houston Libraries, offers an overview of health literacy concepts to help you make more informed healthcare decisions.

Do you Google your medical symptoms and find terrifying results? Are you unsure of the best questions to ask your provider when making healthcare decisions? Are you confused by the often conflicting information in the media about health risks and breakthroughs? If so, taking a little time to improve your health literacy will be well worth the effort.

Because libraries are partners in a healthy community

Because libraries are partners in a healthy community

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. This goes well beyond the ability to read and write. It also includes navigating the healthcare system and being able to understand numbers. Someone can be well-educated and still have low health literacy.

The skills that make up health literacy can be extremely helpful when looking up health information online. With the large number of health websites and resources in existence, it can be confusing and time-consuming to determine which are trustworthy.

The most important thing to consider when evaluating a health website is the source. Start out by looking at the domain. Websites that end in .gov and .edu are typically trustworthy, while .org and .com may be less so. Check to see if there is an easily identifiable sponsoring organization and/or author, and decide if this is someone you trust. If not, proceed with caution. One great resource is, a website produced by the National Library of Medicine which includes information that is easy to read and available in multiple languages.

The media sensationalism around medical stories can also be stress-inducing. Learning a bit about the different types of risks and risk reductions and how to calculate them will help to get past the hype and see the true meanings of the numbers being reported.

Risk is the chance that something will happen. For example, you may have a 2% chance of being diagnosed with a particular disease in the next year. Perhaps if you smoke, your risk increases from 2 to 3%.

Risk reduction is the benefit you get from a treatment or behavior. For example, if you take a particular drug, you may cut your chances from 2 to 1%. There are two ways to communicate the changes in your risk of being diagnosed with that disease in the next year: absolute risk/risk reduction and relative risk/risk reduction.

Absolute risk/risk reduction is the change in risk in fixed terms, using simple subtraction. 3 – 2 = 1%, so, if you smoke, your risk increases by 1%. 2 – 1 = 1%, so if you take the drug, your risk is reduced by 1%.

Relative risk/risk reduction is the change in risk as a proportion of the original risk. This is done by taking the absolute risk and dividing it by the original risk. In both cases, 1/2% = .5, or 50%. If you smoke, your risk increases 50%. If you take the drug, your risk decreases 50%.

While it is technically accurate to say taking the drug reduces your risk of being diagnosed with the disease in the next year by both 1 and 50%, media reports will almost always use the relative number of 50%, because it sounds more impressive. Clinicians pay more attention to the absolute number of 1%, because it is more clinically meaningful. News concerning large percentage changes in risk are probably talking about large proportions of small numbers; knowing this can help you make decisions about your health.

Another simple statistic that is helpful to know is number needed to treat, the number of people who need to have a certain treatment in order for one of them to get the desired effect. It is extremely rare for a treatment to be effective for every single person. In our example, this would be the number of people who need to take the drug in order for one of them to not be diagnosed with the disease in the next year. Many people who take the drug would never have gotten the disease anyway, and some people who take the drug will still get the disease. Number needed to treat is calculated by dividing 100 by the absolute risk reduction, so in this case it is 100/1% = 100. 100 people need to take the drug in order for one of them to not get the disease as a result of taking the drug.

Healthcare is complicated, and factors such as costs and side effects are important considerations. When your doctor presents you with risks and treatment choices, asking about the absolute risk/risk reduction and number needed to treat can help you obtain a better understanding of your prognosis and options. This, in combination with knowing where to find trustworthy health information online, will increase your health literacy and make you a more informed and empowered healthcare consumer.


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Posted on October 4th, 2017 by Esmeralda Fisher and filed under Announcements | Comments Off on Increase Your Health Literacy