Many people have trouble understanding health care terms and information. They struggle with health literacy, which is the ability to understand health information and make informed decisions about health care.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that nine out of 10 Americans have limited health literacy, and this can be harmful. For example, not understanding directions on a prescription can lead to taking the wrong dose. Not understanding written instructions for after surgery care can lead to infection. Worry and stress can add to confusion; language and cultural barriers also affect health literacy.

As health professionals, we can help our patients live healthier lives by finding better words. We can avoid unfamiliar medical terms and instead use everyday words and plain language with patients. For example, we can say “heart” instead of “cardiac,” or “high levels of fat in the blood” instead of “hyperlipidemia.” We can take time to check understanding.

October is Health Literacy Month. Let’s be Health Literacy heroes this month and every month by finding better words.

Jessica Sullivan

graduate student, Muskie School of Public Service, University of Southern Maine

Cape Elizabeth