Handbook of Health Communication

By Teresa L. Thompson; Alicia M. Dorsey et al. | Go to book overview

26
Accessing, Understanding,
and Applying Health
Communication Messages: The
Challenge of Health Literacy
Jay M. Bernhardt
Emory University
Kenzie A. Cameron
The University of Georgia

The public today has greater access to health information than at any previous time in human history. Every day, people are inundated, even bombarded, with an abundance of health information. Health care professionals provide advice, pharmacists dispense printed instructions, health educators distribute brochures, television and radio news shows broadcast stories about peoples' health and well-being, newspapers offer coverage of the latest findings from medical research, and the Internet delivers nearly unlimited information on any and every health topic. What does this assortment of health information have in common? It is all likely to be ineffective, and potentially harmful, if the receivers of the information do not possess a high enough level of health literacy to access the information, understand what is being communicated, and appropriately apply it to their own lives.

The need for high health literacy is particularly paramount as the responsibility for health decisions continues to shift from practitioners to consumers in the modern era of managed care (Root & Stableford, 1999).


HEALTH LITERACY DEFINED

The concept of literacy has traditionally been described as one's ability to read and write. With few exceptions, literacy was considered a skill reserved for the privileged, the educated, and for members of religious orders (Manguel, 1996). Lack of literacy skills was, and is, a major contributor to social inequalities and was often used by those in power as a means of protecting their status and position. For example, states such as South Carolina passed strict laws forbidding all blacks, whether slaves or free men, to be taught to read, and these laws remained in effect until the middle of the 19th century (Manguel, 1996).

In subsequent generations, it became apparent that reading and writing skills by themselves were necessary but not sufficient for functioning and succeeding in society. As a

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