Health literacy requires communities, systems, and institutions to unite in ensuring that everyone has the knowledge and resources to make informed and empowered decisions about their health. It is not the sole responsibility of the healthcare system, and it is certainly not the sole responsibility of the individual. The journey to achieving health literacy must be collaborative, ongoing, and closely bound to the broader fight for health equity!
To celebrate such an important month of awareness and education, it’s important that we have a shared understanding of what health literacy means. The problem, though, is that there is no singular definition on which everyone can agree. In fact, when the Healthy People 2030 Campaign decided to open their definition of health promotion for public comment, sixty-eight (!!) pages of written debate ensued, totaling 154 public comments on revision suggestions and including dozens of proposed alternative definitions.
Amidst the diverse – and sometimes contradictory – perspectives on what health literacy is and why it matters, where does this Nerdy Girl stand? Overall, I believe that health literacy is measured by an individual’s ability to find, independently understand, critique, and confidently use the information provided to them for the benefit of their health and the health of their communities.
I would like to note that the term “health literacy” seems to inherently suggest that it’s up to the individual to educate themselves, but that totally minimizes the fact that existing gaps in health literacy are caused and worsened by shortcomings in healthcare access, education, employment, and physical/environmental conditions (see source below). It is only when these shortcomings are addressed through social movement, political advocacy, and community care that the individual is able to even begin the work needed to set their sights on “achieving” health literacy. In turn, increased health literacy among communities will further contribute to reducing and eliminating health and social inequities of all kinds.
If “achieving” the standard of health literacy outlined by Those Nerdy Girls sounds like a tall order, it’s because it is! But it’s an order made much less overwhelming by collaboration and information sharing. In honor of health literacy being important every month of the year, we are calling on the entire Nerdy Girl community to actively participate in the push for increased health literacy in the spaces where they live, work, learn, and play. What does this mean for you in concrete terms, particularly if you are not a healthcare professional who provides clinical information or services?
Parents, guardians, and older siblings: Drawing from the best practices established by educators for building children’s reading literacy, try to transform daily tasks into learning experiences for your kids or younger siblings. In the same way you might read bedtime stories with your children to encourage reading comprehension, encourage them to read the nutritional labels on the items you grab while at the grocery store (it might just give the little ones something to do so that you can shop in peace). Engage the kids in food “experiments”, such as measuring out the actual amounts of sugar that can be found in certain drinks, cereals, and snacks. Sit down with your children and show them where and how to find safe and accurate information online. Model what it looks like to give and receive consent in any situation that involves their bodies, including in doctors’ offices. No matter the creative approach, strive to lead by example by establishing a routine around these habits that is both visible and engaging to the children in your household.
Teachers, faculty, and staff: Children and young adults are likely to endure some collection of physical and mental changes – and those changes can feel confusing or isolating. Actively working to dissolve the shame surrounding certain health concerns (especially concerns surrounding reproductive health), and signposting your school’s counseling options early and often in the academic year, and teaching students how to use reputable and safe digital sources for gathering (health) information are all ways that educators beyond the healthcare field can be vocal and highly informed advocates for health literacy.
Community members: In any community, health literacy is influenced by a variety of information channels, from your neighborhood Facebook group and the billboards posted along the highways to the way over-the-counter medications are advertised in your local pharmacy. Communicating with neighbors, colleagues, local businesses, and loved ones about your ideas of what a healthy community looks like – particularly when it comes to how certain places and products are socially marketed among community members – is a great launching point for transforming access to good and healthy information where you live. As an extension of Media Literacy Week (October 23), suggesting that your local community library hosts age-appropriate workshops on how to do proper health information-seeking on the Internet could be a cost-effective but deeply impactful and timely activity!
Employers: Offering workplace wellness activities, external resources, and counseling support is just the beginning of what employers can do to stand at the forefront of health literacy, but as for every other group of influence, it is crucial that they lead by example. Abstaining from coming into work when ill (infectious or not), providing healthy food options for employees at every level of the organization, maintaining safe and clean working conditions, and normalizing a sustainable work-life balance are all ways to promote collectively healthy and health literate workplaces. This is not to mention that health literacy is closely tied to workers’ rights; adequate compensation must include healthcare benefits such as counseling services and tailored health education resources.
Faith leaders: Stigma and shame are some of the most elusive and harmful barriers to achieving health literacy. These things can be culturally pervasive and cross-generational, but a good amount of literature (see resources below) have shown that people of faith are often quite willing to receive health guidance from their religious leaders, given that such leaders dedicate their entire careers and lives to nurturing community trust. If you are a faith leader, consider partnering with public health institutions in your area to promote healthy behaviors – from screenings to mental health treatment. Across every religious tradition, faith leaders are known for helping people disentangle complicated and sometimes contradicting aspects of what it means to be human. This means that they are well-positioned to demonstrate how faith and science can not only coexist, but can be in conversation with one another to nurture and protect the health of their communities.
This is not to mention the roles that policymakers, researchers, and providers who specialize in healthcare must undertake in their professional lives to enhance and sustain health literacy across the communities they represent and serve…but that could be a massive post of its own! We would love to hear the ways that the dedicated people across our Nerdy Girl community are championing health literacy in small but important ways in their personal and professional lives. Health literacy is a requirement for health equity. And just like health equity, health literacy is everyone’s right and everyone’s responsibility.
Stay safe, stay well, fight the good fight!
Those Nerdy Girls