October is Health Literacy Month and public health experts agree: The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of this issue like nothing before.

“In a time like this of the COVID-19 pandemic, full of uncertainties, in which information is constantly changing and a rapid behavior change by the world population is required to reduce the risks of infection and spread of this disease, presenting an adequate level of health literacy has never been more important,” write the authors of a paper published September 2020 in the journal of the Brazilian Medical Association.

Health literacy refers to the ability to find and understand health information and then use it to take appropriate action. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this applies to both individuals as well as organizations, which have a responsibility to promote health literacy.

Health literacy has been important as long as there have been illness and subsequent treatments. The concept, however, was not officially recognized in the literature until the early 1990s. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), the first large-scale survey of its kind, done in 2010, found only 12 percent of Americans to have a proficient level of health literacy.

Today there are still few studies that identify the level of literacy in different countries, according to the authors of the Brazilian study. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the gaps in health literacy and brought to light a need for increased quantifying and mapping of health literacy globally, according to experts.

The authors of this paper, published in the journal Public Health, agree that the problem is widely unrecognized.

“It is ironic that while there is an overwhelming necessity worldwide for tackling the disease, the issue of health literacy is ignored or misjudged as a public health problem in the current health dilemma,” they write.

With nearly 7 million total cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. alone, the consequences of low levels of health literacy have never been more dire. This comes at a time when the information dissemination has never been faster or more widespread – and often inaccurate. Instead of being the solution to the problem, this is adding to it.

“A global epidemic of misinformation — spreading rapidly through social media platforms and other outlets — poses a serious problem for public health,“ write the authors of this article, published in the Lancet in February.

For this reason, it is more important than ever before to help fight the spread of misinformation and direct your own patients to reliable sources of information. You can take a deeper dive into this issue through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and create a health literacy plan for your practice.

Whatever you decide to do, get started this month and your voice will be amplified by #healthliteracymonth.

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