Health Literacy – Why Health Websites Are Important

I recently aided in the writing of a book on a topic that is almost as great a concern to doctors, health care providers, and governments worldwide as disease itself – health literacy. This term is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand the basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

Health literacy can also be further defined as having the ability to correctly read bottles of prescription medicines and how often to take them, or to understand dietary restrictions advised by their physicians and how to follow them. It can include patients’ ability to understand their diseases and the different treatment options available to them, to understand the concepts of risks and benefits, and to be able to communicate effectively with their health care providers. Finally – and the reason I’m writing this article – health literacy can be measured to some extent by patients’ ability to find and understand useful information about their health.

Where can you go to find out more about what ails you?

There was a time when there was only one answer to this question – your doctor. But the pressures of modern medical practice have left physicians themselves with less time to spend with each patient, and often without the training or patience to spend time with individuals making sure that they understand the nature of their conditions, and what they must do from their side to help the doctors in treating these conditions.

Your doctor may tell you to “reduce calories” or to “lower the amount of saturated fats in your diet” or to “get more exercise.” But they often don’t follow up that advice with explanations of where to go to get information on how many calories are contained in the foods you currently eat. Or what exactly a saturated fat is, as opposed to one of the “good fats.” Or what kinds of exercise might be most beneficial for you, and how often you should perform them. So where do you go for this kind of information?

Enter the Internet

Before the invention of the World Wide Web, with its intuitive, click-here-for-more-information multimedia interface, if you were interested in learning more about matters that affected your health you would have had to go to libraries, or possibly even to specialized medical libraries. There you would have had to spend hours or days pouring through stacks of books searching for information about the condition or the disease you wanted to know about. And then when you found it, more often than not it would be in “medicalese” that was as incomprehensible to you as ancient Greek.

Now you can access that information in milliseconds on your home computer, or even on your “smart phones” on websites not unlike…uh…this one. Here on you can scan the list of recent articles and find information on everything from the Glycemic Index and how to understand it to the health benefits of avocados to information on the latest breakthroughs in drugs, nutrition, exercise, meditation, and other topics. And this information has in almost all cases been “translated” from its original “medicalese” into easy-to-understand, useful information that you can actually do something with.

You can search this and many, many other health-related sites for specific keywords or topics, and quickly “home in” on the things you’re most interested in. You can receive information from a wide variety of sources, and then take that information with you on your next visit to the doctor, and ask him or her about it, and whether it might be applicable to your condition. You can “mine” the Internet for the information you need to improve your ability to ask your health care providers the right questions, and thus get more specific and more useful answers.

In short, you can become more of an active participant in your own health care, and a more knowledgeable one. I, for one, think that that’s a good thing. It makes me proud to be one of the people contributing articles here.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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