As adolescents transition into adulthood, they are in their prime years to gain and practice valuable knowledge and skills. This is when they begin to make independent decisions and manage certain aspects of their own lives, and it is vitally important for educators and influencers to keep this in mind.
Personal health is a significant part of any adult’s life. A working knowledge of how to maintain a healthy lifestyle and how to navigate the healthcare system is valuable.
Personal health doesn’t just come naturally, but the knowledge, skills, and habits associated with personal health are best learned during adolescence so that they can solidify into a foundation of good health throughout adult life.
These benefits come with a strong sense of health literacy.
What is health literacy?
Like the literacy required to effectively read and write, health literacy is a set of skills. It can be defined as the ability to understand and use health information in order to make good decisions and function effectively in the healthcare system.
Health literacy encompasses the skills that a person uses to mentally process and apply the knowledge and attitudes he or she has about health to effectively manage his or her health environment. This comes down to skills as basic as the ability to read and understand health vocabulary, computation, and interactivity with healthcare professionals.
What are the benefits of health literacy?
Strong health literacy allows young people the following benefits when it comes to their personal health:
Access to information
Access to adequate resources and health information is key. Without initial access, it would be difficult for anyone to read up on questions they may have about their health or to look up the care and facilities they need to access. Good health literacy may help adolescents better navigate the internet to find and understand health information.
Choice is the most powerful tool a person has when it comes to their health. Health literacy allows people to make safer, more informed choices. Health literate individuals can better understand nutrition facts and choose a better diet or to read drug labels and choose how to consume medicines properly.
Even more important than choice is the knowledge of all the options available in a given scenario. A health literate individual is more likely to do his or her own research about treatments for certain conditions and the available alternatives—for example, when researching medications, one may come across information about an alternative that involves therapy instead. They can then bring this knowledge to an appointment with their healthcare providers to get professional opinions and guidance and more informed decisions.
Desire for healthcare
Health literacy also gives young adults the desire to seek out healthcare or information. It spurs them to want to learn more about personal health and to do research before selecting a care provider. More simply put, it encourages them to make appointments and fill medications when they need it.
Why is health literacy important?
Health literacy is important because it directly affects one’s ability to access health information and, therefore, to access adequate care services. Adults with low health literacy are more likely to have issues interacting with their physicians and other healthcare providers, which can then lead to issues with self-management of chronic conditions and adherence to medication.
A lack of health literacy is therefore linked to a chain reaction of worse health outcomes, higher personal risk, and the monetary cost of time and resources wasted or misused.
What makes this information worse is that between one-third and one-half of adults in the U.S. have low levels of health literacy. How do we tackle this issue?
Encourage young adults to be invested in health
One possible avenue is social media. Today’s young adults are digital natives, and social media provides them with a wealth of information.
A variety of health-focused YouTube channels, Twitter, and Instagram accounts and Facebook groups and pages already exist, and adolescents use them to an extent. It is important to direct them towards these resources when possible, but it is also important to develop resources that are specifically geared towards their interests.
Another way to get adolescents to start thinking more critically about their personal health is to encourage parents to give them more independence. Parents can encourage participation in simple, small ways—like having their teens call to make an appointment or pick up a prescription at a pharmacy.
Gradually, they can work up to more complex responsibilities, such as helping their parents choose a new healthcare provider. This gives adolescents more practical, hands-on experience with their own health decisions. Parents should continually follow up on any responsibilities delegated to their children.
Adolescents with existing health conditions or disabilities are in special need of health literacy so that they can learn effective management of those conditions and, thus, be able to seek appropriate medical care when they become independent of their parents.
Ultimately, if the adolescent population is able to become a health literate force, they will not only be healthier, but they will be able to advocate for better healthcare in their communities as they learn best practices and seek the best possible care.