America’s health literacy crisis

Mallory Nilles–– Staff Writer 

I am a patient care technician, a CNA—except I’m not even certified, so I suppose that makes me just an NA. Regardless, the training I received consisted of one day of basic techniques in a lab, such as how to turn a patient and empty a catheter, and one day of online training to learn hospital policies and general tasks I’d have to do and situations I would likely run into. I took a CPR course. Then I shadowed for seven shifts, progressing on each of them. And then I was on my own. I spent my entire summer wiping behinds and giving baths, toileting patients, and hearing their stories. It changed the way I view healthcare dramatically. 

I’m a pre-med student at Dordt University. I’ve been studying this stuff for years now. I know the basics, yes. I can bandage cuts and answer questions about the very general function of the human body and its organ systems. But I cannot diagnose someone, nor am I qualified to give sound health advice beyond the typical eat, sleep, and exercise well. 

But that didn’t stop people from asking me for it. One person—not even a patient—asked me if they had diabetes. They told me their symptoms and concerns, and I listened. It didn’t sound good, diabetes or not—and I told them that. I recommended they see their doctor, reminding them that my opinion holds zero weight. They didn’t react negatively; there was no crying or yelling. They simply thanked me for being honest with them because they didn’t trust doctors enough to tell them the truth. 

My patients often ask me if their blood pressure is good after I read it to them. I explain that 120/80 is what is considered healthy, followed by what the numbers mean. Your top number is the pressure on your vessels when the heart is actively contracting, and the bottom number is the pressure on your vessels when the heart is resting between beats. I have had diabetics ask me if their blood sugar is good, meaning they don’t even know where it’s supposed to be at. (Normal is 70-139 mg/dL.) The compilation of these questions was concerning, but it was when I got asked if someone had diabetes that I realized America’s health problems go far deeper than staff shortages, cost, and obesity. 

Health literacy is the term used to describe one’s overall ability to understand health and medicine. According to a BMJ Journal by Chenxi Liu, there are four underlying constructs of health literacy: cultural and conceptual knowledge, print health literacy (reading and writing), oral health literacy (speaking and listening), and numeracy. Each of these components plays a key role in understanding the status of one’s health. People with low health literacy are more likely to use the emergency room, have higher hospitalization rates, develop more diseases, and have higher mortality than those who are health literate, according to a National Library of Medicine journal by Kathleen Hickey. This lack of health literacy costs our hospitals and taxes our Photohealthcare system. With unprecedented staff shortages and a larger aging population than ever before, we must step up as individuals to support healthcare workers around the nation and prevent our hospitals from bursting at the seams. Additionally, being high in health literacy allows you to ask questions about and advocate for your health. Don’t you want to know what’s happening? When you know which questions to ask, you combat the typical feeling of concern about whether you have the information you need, as well as what to do with that information. 

I might’ve been in the wrong; telling an individual that things didn’t look good while having no abbreviations behind my name isn’t something I plan to make a habit of. After all, I am just an undergraduate student. But I did one important thing right: I increased his health literacy. I urge you to do the same, for yourself and others. Get educated; there’s no shortage of material online. Don’t wait until you’re in the hospital with an almost totally preventable infection to become health literate. It could save your life, after all. 

Contributed Photo 

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