How Health Numeracy Can Help Promote Equal Health Care Access

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A smiling team of health professionals.

Health numeracy — the ability to understand and use numbers to make decisions affecting health — is fundamental to the well-being of individuals and communities. Skilled communication can unlock access to critical health care for those challenged to comprehend numerical information related to medications, treatments, test results, and other health and medical information.

Promoting numeracy while working with health care professionals to communicate numerical and mathematical information more clearly reduces barriers to equal health care access. Pursuing an advanced degree, such as an online Master of Arts in Health Communication, can help professionals build the skills to become communication experts in health care and improve health numeracy.

What Is Health Numeracy?

Health numeracy is a component of health literacy, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Numeracy is critical because so much health information — from height and weight to blood test results, heart function and risk probabilities — is presented or described in numerical terms.

People rely on numeracy to make decisions about their health without even realizing it. Deciding when to ingest a medication that should be taken three times a day at regular intervals requires basic math skills, for example. However, health numeracy can involve far more complicated quantitative and probabilistic challenges.

The coronavirus outbreak that was declared a public health emergency in the United States in early 2020 provides an instructive example of numeracy and broader health literacy challenges. Understanding the threat a virus poses requires a basic understanding of numerical data (numbers of infected individuals and death rates among those infected) and exponential growth, as well as reasoning skills to comprehend the implications of faster or slower infection rates. Individuals lacking those abilities make less informed decisions that affect both their own health and that of their families and communities.

Promoting Equal Health Care Access

Multiple factors can contribute to poor numeracy skills. Individuals may lack education, have learning disabilities or experience cognitive decline associated with age or injury. Whatever the cause, the inability to understand health information correlates to poorer health outcomes. In the United States, the odds of being in poor health are four times greater for low-skilled adults than for those with the highest proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills, according to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

Developed under the auspices of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PIAAC assesses and compares the basic skills and competencies of adults around the world. Results of the most recent PIAAC survey of U.S. adults ages 16 to 65 show 29% have numeracy proficiency of only Level 1 or below on a five-level scale; examples of tasks required to demonstrate Level 1 proficiency include counting, sorting and basic arithmetic operations. In the United States, where socioeconomic background has a stronger impact on skills proficiency compared with other countries, low-educated adults from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly likely to have low skills, according to the OECD.

Physicians and other health care professionals can help address health disparities related to numeracy by communicating clearly and concisely. Presenting complicated information with simple language can make the difference between a patient who understands a treatment and one who fails to take actions necessary for good health. The National Academy of Medicine suggests the following strategies, among others, for making numerical information easier to understand:

  • Combine numbers with words and visual elements. Presenting numerical information with descriptions and images to meet an individual’s preferred learning method helps ensure comprehension.
  • Do the math. For example, advising a patient to lose a specific number of pounds rather than a percentage of their bodyweight simplifies the instruction.
  • Provide only the most necessary information. Too much information, including numerical data, can overwhelm patients.
  • Present information consistently. For example, use the same denominators in fractions and ratios when comparing information.

Such strategies can be applied not just to doctor-to-patient interactions but also to communication between health care professionals and to communications provided by health systems and health benefits providers.

Pursuing a Career in Health Communication

Students interested in health numeracy and promoting equal health care access should consider careers in health communication and public health. Educating individuals and communities and implementing programs at medical facilities to better address health numeracy require advanced communication skills, such as those provided by bachelor’s or master’s degree programs in public relations or health communication.

With a curriculum covering such topics as visual communication and medical concepts and health writing, Rider University’s online Master of Arts in Health Communication program provides students with the education and skills development necessary to pursue public health and public relations careers in health care. Armed with those skills, graduates can seek a variety of positions, such as community educator, policy advisor, and outreach and communications manager.

Learn More About Earning a Master of Arts in Health Communication

Promoting health numeracy is a key component of promoting equal access to health care, and its importance will likely increase as health care technology grows more complex. Health care professionals with advanced communication skills who have been trained to promote health numeracy and ensure the public has the information it needs to make health-related decisions will be in increasing demand.

Learn more about how the Rider University online Master of Arts in Health Communication program can help students develop the health communication skills necessary to support the health of individuals and communities.

Recommended Readings

How Poor Health Literacy Impacts Vulnerable Populations

What Is Health Information Technology and How Does It Impact Health Communication?

Why Is Health Literacy Important, and How Can Communication Experts Promote It?

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Understanding Literacy & Numeracy” 

ExploreHealthCareers.org, “What in the World is Public Health?” 

National Academy of Medicine, “Strategies to Enhance Numeracy Skills”

National Center for Education Statistics, PIAAC Proficiency Levels for Numeracy

National Center for Education Statistics, PIAAC Results

NCBI, “What Is Numeracy?: It’s More Than Mathematics” 

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Country Note, United States, Survey of Adult Skills First Results

Springer Link, “Health and Numeracy: The Role of Numeracy Skills in Health Satisfaction and Health-Related Behaviour”

The Washington Post, “Why Outbreaks Like Coronavirus Spread Exponentially, and How to ‘Flatten the Curve'”