Health Literacy Matters


Health literacy matters! So you might be asking what is health literacy?

I should also add a note at this stage that this post is largely based around health literacy in the context of musculoskeletal medicine.

What is health literacy?

Many people are familiar with the term financial literacy, which is essentially a good understanding of finances and how to manage money appropriately. Health literacy is essentially having a good understanding of our health and how to manage our health in the best way possible. I strongly believe that health literacy matters to ensure we are equipped to manage our health in the best way possible!

Health Literacy in the context of musculoskeletal medicine?

In the context of musculoskeletal medicine, it could be argued that health literacy is even more important. Too often common conditions such a back pain, neck pain, knee osteoarthritis and hip osteoarthritis which present a massive health burden on our society become over medicalised evoking a sense of fear in individuals with relatively normal findings.

Poor education, advise and understanding of pain and the underlying causes particularly in the initial stages of an injury may present significant complications as the injury progresses. A good understanding of injury is even more relevant where the spine is involved. Injuries such as whiplash, neck pain and low back pain are just a few examples.

Below is a video which provides some more information on pain particularly persistent pain. The video is also a good example just one way a person can improve their understanding of pain!

Health Literacy matters when dealing with low back pain!

Over medicalisation of common pathologies in low back pain have become a common occurrence.

Quick note: In some cases there are serious pathologies which require immediate medical attention. An example of this would be cauda equina syndrome in low back pain which would require immediate surgical decompression of the affected nerves.

However, in the vast majority of cases, sinister pathologies are not the underlying cause of symptoms. Instead very normal findings on imaging such as “degenerative changes” and  “disc bulges” may be mis-interpreted and mislead consumers in thinking there is an issue. Having good health literacy would mean that individuals will better understand how to interpret medical information and seek multiple opinions before committing to an intervention.

How do we look after our health in the 21st Century?

In our current day to day life we look after our health most often through a reactive approach. Essentially we are waiting for something to go wrong before we take action. In the context of musculoskeletal medicine, we usually wait until we have pain before we take action. I am certainly a proponent of preventative medicine particularly in the field of musculoskeletal health over the reactive approach.

Having good health literacy will ensure that as individuals we become aware that taking the preventative approach is the ideal approach. Further, having a preventative approach will place us in a position much better equipped to deal with health challenges if and when they arise.

This picture describes that health literacy matters. Knowing that walking and jogging are beneficial for your health is very important knowledge that many do not know!

Walking and jogging are both great ways to exercise preventative health!

Why does health literacy matter?

Healthy literacy matters because of our health matters! Having a good understanding of our health conditions will allow us to implement a higher level of control when managing our injuries. Not only will a higher level of health literacy improve the likelihood that better decisions are made with respect to our health, but it will also provide a greater sense of control and improve our confidence that the right decisions are being made. Having greater confidence that the right decisions are being made may then allow a greater probability for positive outcomes.

Methods to improve health literacy?

While I was writing this article the obvious question arose as to how someone can actually improve their health literacy? In some cases where someone like myself has had qualifications in the area of musculoskeletal health (qualification in physiotherapy) having a good understanding becomes easier, and I should note that there are still a lot of things even in my area of expertise that I still do not know!

Here are a few different methods to improve health literacy:

  • Read information from reputable sources such as articles or reputable individuals
  • When you gain information from one source double check by checking the information also from other sources.
  • Attend appropriate courses which may need to be in laymans terms
  • Listen to podcasts, read books, magazines and journals.
  • If you are getting information from a health professional does the information make sense
  • When seeking information from various health professionals is the message consistent amongst professionals within the same profession and between professions.

Take away message?

The final take away message is to understand that health literacy matters and take control of your health. When seeking information from health professionals remember that it is sometimes worthwhile getting a second opinion!

How can we help?

Both are physiotherapy and counselling team are available to not only help with your therapy but to improve your understanding. Our mobile physio Sydney team is accessible if you live in Sydney and our counselling is able to offer online counselling appointment. Contact us if you would like further information or just to have a chat! We can point you in the right direction if we can not help!

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