In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a survey of almost 20,000 Americans ages 16 and older, designed to measure the health literacy of the population. The agency was measuring what percent of individuals could perform tasks like taking a prescription per a doctor’s orders, practicing self-care, and determining what their health insurance would pay for.
It found that only 12 percent were proficient, meaning that they had enough knowledge to make important healthcare decisions. Of course, this was more than 10 years ago. We’ve surely gotten better at this since then, especially with the passage of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Right?
Denver-based health education organization iTriage conducted a similar study last year, and their researchers found that Americans are now 18 percent proficient at managing their own healthcare. (Note: iTriage surveyed just 1,000 people, whereas the federal government looked at 19,000, so feasibly we could be even more inept.) Imagine if only 18 percent of drivers were proficient (hold back your sarcastic remarks—at least 25 percent are)—how terrifying would getting on the road be? Remember, we’re talking about your health here, which is just as important (if not more so) as your safety.
But maybe we’re not to blame. Schools don’t teach young students how to navigate complex healthcare policies, even though it’s just as crucial to know when you need to go to the doctor as it is to do long-division (if not more so). To try to fix this problem, iTriage launched a new website, HealthAtHand.com, at the end of February. Here, you can take a quiz to test how knowledgeable you are, browse glossaries that define terms like antihistamine and glucose, and read through guides that explain why you need a primary care provider and how to avoid unnecessary emergency room treatments.
“A lot of the health literacy initiatives in the past have been very provider-focused, [with doctors saying], ‘How can I communicate with my patients appropriately?’” says Kevin Riddleberger, senior director of clinical solutions at iTriage. “But 99 percent of healthcare decisions are occurring outside of physicians’ walls. With healthathand.com, it’s you knowing your status or number, just like knowing your blood pressure or heart rate or weight or height. Then it’s, ‘How then do I get the right content to improve on those scores?’”
The team behind Healthathand.com hopes to work with local partners in the future to provide more information on specific conditions and diseases on the site. They’re also attending multiple 9Health Fairs across the state to get the word out about this new resource.
“It’s not going to be one of us that solves it but all of us understanding that this is a big problem,” Riddleberger says. “It’s not a sexy issue, but [consumers] really need to understand what’s going on with their health.”
Follow editorial assistant Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.