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July 2017

Health Literacy in Patients With Head and Neck Cancer: An Understudied Issue

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California
JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2017;143(7):645-646. doi:10.1001/jamaoto.2017.0242

The Institute of Medicine defines health literacy as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic information and services needed to make appropriate decisions regarding their health.1 Fundamental literacy is a core component of health literacy. Traditionally described as the ability to read and write, fundamental literacy also includes the ability for comprehension and reasoning. Another closely related component is numeracy: the ability to identify and perform quantitative computations using numbers embedded in printed materials. Health literacy goes beyond fundamental literacy and numeracy, and includes other skills such speaking, listening, adequate background medical knowledge, and the ability for self-advocacy. These are critical skills needed to effectively navigate through today’s complex health care environment. A patient with functional health literacy should be proficient in tasks such as understanding prescription instructions, completing medical and financial forms, searching for and assessing the accuracy of health information in the media, and comparing nutritional information of foods in the grocery store. Furthermore, in today’s health care environment, patients have to be able to compare insurance plans, verify which health care providers participate in their plan, and determine which services are covered.

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