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Health literacy can be understood as cognitive skills of an individual, to help motivate him/her to use available healthcare resources, understand and apply health knowledge to prevent diseases and promote good health. It simply means to be able to comprehend educational pamphlets and directions given by the doctor on a particular health issue.
Health literacy is an emerging concept encompassing health and literacy. It is a critical resource for everyday living. Let’s take an example of a woman in a rural setting who is pregnant. If she is literate and could understand general instructions given by her doctor, then she could make informed decisions about the health of her family and that of her own. These decisions could include whether to get ante-natal testing done or to take iron-folic acid tablets on time or for family planning. Timely informed decisions could help reduce maternal and infant mortality. This could result in better utilization of healthcare services and better health outcomes. The current situation in rural areas is quite worrisome, with illiterate women who do not understand the importance of such immunizations, ante-natal visits or iron-folic acid supplements. They have little or no knowledge on family planning and hence have less spacing between their children. This lack of health literacy adversely affects her health and that of her children.
Another example could be in an urban setting of a teenager engaged in smoking. He may be well educated but either fails to understand the impact of this behavior on his health, or engages in this action despite possessing adequate knowledge of what could be the harmful effects of it. Here, a more social and behavioral determinant of health is interplaying. While education does play a role improving ones understanding of health, but may not be completely necessary. Being able to understand the knowledge and applying it to a lifestyle modification to improve one’s health is of paramount importance.
A comprehensive model of health education aims to understand the determinants of health, encouraging individual or collective practices to modify any determinant for a healthier living. Health literacy involves knowledge of, and understanding instructions, and reading as well as numerical skills. Numerical skills are useful in understanding medicine dosage and timings. These skills are helpful in an individual’s self-health assessment such as self-breast examination, or for planning a healthy diet, or taking measures to prevent oral cancer.
Health literacy promotes empowerment, which is necessary to help build a sustainable society. For individuals comprehending health knowledge, its importance and application can assist in rendering knowledge in others and especially in the younger and vulnerable population. Imparting health education in the form of IEC (information, education and communication) activities with audio-visuals is vital to improve health literacy among those who have had little or no formal education. This can help build a stronger and self-sustaining community to aid in prevention of health problems. Sources of health education like television, newspapers, radio and short dramas can help to ameliorate health of the community. Health campaigns in the rural settings can be a challenge, mostly due to lack of education and trust. Compliance with the local health centers and ASHA workers can also help overcome this challenge.
The concept of health literacy is not just to understand health information but also to empower individuals to make informed timely decisions for their health and those they care about.
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