Health literacy: It doesn’t have to be brain surgery

Written by Ames Elliot, M.P.H.

Two words strike fear into the heart of every person who goes to the doctor for a headache: brain tumor. These are the words I heard when I went with a friend to her appointment with a neurosurgeon. My friend knew the appointment could feel scary and asked me to come along and take notes for her.

While this friend is college-educated, works in the healthcare field and has struggled with several other health issues in her life, she knew she might need extra help to when meeting with her doctor. She’s not alone. Studies show that new cancer patients forget half the information given to them when it is bad news. Her brain tumor was small and she wouldn’t need surgery unless it got much bigger. After the appointment, she asked me to go over my notes because she was still reeling from the news.

Health literacy isn’t about intelligence and it’s not about experience. It’s about  “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

Many think that health literacy is only a problem for elderly, low income, minority or immigrant people. It is true that those groups are more likely to have low health literacy. What might surprise you are the overall literacy rates in this country. Did you know that that the average adult reading level is eighth to ninth grade? Did you know that at least one in five people read at or below the fifth grade level? The odds for reading at or below a fifth grade level are even higher for minorities and for elderly people. Many of these patients may feel ashamed about low literacy and try to cover it up.

Health literacy is an issue for many Oregonians, even the ones you don’t suspect. The good news is that OHSU is making strides to improve health literacy through our doctors, our patients and the communities we serve. Even if health literacy is not exactly brain surgery, I believe it is just as important.

Note from the author: Just in case you are wondering, this article is written at a ninth grade level.


Ames Elliot, M.P.H., is the research education coordinator for the OHSU Integrity Office. Her professional interests include health communication, research translation and medical anthropology.  In her free time, she can be found playing outside or cuddled up inside with her 3 ½ pound blind Chihuahua puppy, Rosebud.

One response to “Health literacy: It doesn’t have to be brain surgery

  1. This is a great post, Ames! I totally agree that under stressful circumstances, anyone can fall victim to forgetting important information they’re given at the doctor’s office. Thanks for sharing this!

Comments are closed.