October is Health Literacy Month. Why is it so important?

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Hanna Horvath, CFP®Managing Editor & Certified Financial Planner™Hanna Horvath, CFP®, is a certified financial planner and former managing editor at Policygenius. Her work has also been featured in NBC News, Business Insider, Inc. Magazine, CNBC, Best Company, and HerMoney.

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Rhinorrhea, contusions, epistaxis, biopsies — these words can immediately create confusion for anyone who isn’t working in the health care field. But, it’s important to understand this information because, at some point in our lives, we all need health care.

Understanding health information can make going to the doctor, taking medication or buying health insurance less bewildering — which is what health literacy is all about. From medical records to insurance terms, health literacy helps you make better informed decisions for your health.

Why is health literacy important?

The lack of health literacy is a big problem in America, said Helen Osborne, founder of Health Literacy Month, an annual awareness campaign in October that teaches the public about health proficiency. Health Literacy Month falls just before the open enrollment period for the federal health insurance marketplace, which runs from Nov. 1 until Dec. 15.

Osborne said she founded the event 19 years ago to help individuals and companies work together to make health language easy to understand.

“It’s about connecting those who work in health care with the insurance companies and the public,” she said. “This month has really evolved into an international effort to understand healthcare access and wellness.”

She explained that without health literacy, you may not be informed enough to make the right health decision, which can cost you money or even your health down the road.

America's problem with health literacy

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, only 12% of U.S. adults had proficient in health literacy, meaning most people lack the skills to manage their health. The lowest rates of health literacy were in minority and low income populations, as well as the elderly.

Low health literacy is linked to higher rates of hospitalizations and use of expensive treatments, and less frequent use of preventative care. The adults with low rates of health literacy are more likely to report their health as poor and less likely to have health insurance.

Americans collectively have a hard time understanding health insurance: A recent Policygenius survey reported that four in five Americans didn’t know when the open enrollment period was. Another Policygenius survey found that 96% of Americans didn’t know four of the most basic health insurance terms.

These are problems Osborne hopes to battle.

“It’s about understanding the paperwork and medications, but also just learning how to navigate the healthcare system,” she said.

Osborne explained it wasn’t always a matter of “educational access,” but of “physical access.” She said sometimes when a health crises occurred, the patient doesn't know whether to go to a clinic, primary care doctor or emergency room.

How to become health literate

To improve your health literacy, start by speaking up at the doctors office. Often patients shy away from asking their doctor to explain confusing terminology, which can have big health impacts down the line, said Osborne.

She said your doctor should be there to help you, not intimidate you. Don’t be afraid to ask them to elaborate on a word or phrase.

You can also take your learning online. There are many resources dedicated to explaining complex world of health care, from simplifying medical terminology to explaining the basics of health insurance.

To learn more about insurance and other medical terms that can increase your health literacy, check out our guide to health insurance.

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