Understanding Health Literacy

How well can you interpret health information? This simple question is central in understanding disparities in health literacy across the world. Health literacy is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain and understand basic health information and services in order to make appropriate health decisions[1]. Everywhere in the world health literacy affects a person’s ability to locate healthcare providers and services, fill out health forms, share personal health information with providers, manage chronic diseases, and engage in self-care.[2]

In the Sacred Valley, health literacy is low to non-existent due to three problems. First, individuals in these communities have been historically isolated, often living hours from the closest health clinic or education center. Second, most people only speak the Andean indigenous language, Quechua, and Spanish proficiency is low. This disparity is problematic, as most staff at the nearest health clinic often cannot understand or speak Quechua. Third, many people in our area, including many of our promotoras have limited educational backgrounds, and few read or write. Thus, written language is of little assistance to them when they are both learning and teaching information.

So, how do we improve health literacy amongst promotoras and, eventually, their communities? At Sacred Valley Health, we utilize culturally relevant illustrations that both promotoras and their communities can understand.

During my time as a volunteer at Sacred Valley Health, I have been amazed by the stunning collection of visual images we use as teaching tools and how effective they are in teaching complex health information. Sacred Valley Health staff works together to create these images. They consist of line drawings that simplify complexities and highlight key concepts by breaking the information into understandable chunks. The drawings focus on symptoms and behavior associated with certain conditions, such as diarrhea or anemia. They also demonstrate the actions that should be taken to address the underlying conditions. Additionally, these drawings are an effective way to increase health literacy among people with low reading ability.

In September, we conducted a capacitación, or training, on diarrhea and the dangers of dehydration. The pictures below illustrate the symptoms and steps that can be taken to remedy dehydration. Illustrations like these go a long way in improving health literacy among our promotoras and the community members under their care.

Written by Aimee Schantz and Rosanna Giorlandino

Stage 1 of Dehydration: This patient is thirsty. Treat diarrhea with oral rehydration beverage or a suero oral
Stage 1 of Dehydration: This patient is thirsty. Treat diarrhea with oral rehydration beverage or a suero oral
Stage 2: Patient has skin fold with return delayed more than 2 seconds
Stage 2: Patient has skin fold with return delayed more than 2 seconds
Stage 3: Confusion, dizziness, sunken eyes, and weight loss.  The patient has reached severe dehydration and needs to be taken to medical clinic or hospital
Stage 3: Confusion, dizziness, sunken eyes, and weight loss. The patient has reached severe dehydration and needs to be taken to medical clinic or hospital
An illustration showing why and how to treat water so that it is safe to drink
An illustration showing why and how to treat water so that it is safe to drink
An illustration of how to make oral rehydration salts, which can help alleviate symptoms of diarrhea
An illustration of how to make oral rehydration salts, which can help alleviate symptoms of diarrhea

[1] “Quick Guide to Health Literacy,” the United States Department of Health and Human Services, p.4 http://1.usa.gov/1L1TPmj

[2] “Quick Guide to Health Literacy”, p. 9

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