The importance of healthy literacy and dental care

July 02, 2015


Have you ever read a sentence over and over and still not understood what it said? Medical documents especially can make grasping concepts difficult. Between the medical jargon of privacy notices and the highly technical language of consent forms, you may be tempted to sign on the dotted line without a second thought. However, those documents contain vital information about your health. Though doctors and dentists are available for regular check-ups, it's up to you to practice a daily health routine, and that's only possible if you're properly informed.

If all those papers your doctors hand you look confusing, don't worry. Many adults are in the same boat as you. Your ability to read those documents has to do with health literacy, and it's up to patients and professionals alike to address this problem.

Defining health literacy
Health literacy is a measure of how well an individual can read and comprehend the basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.1 Health information and services refers to documents such as consent forms, privacy notices, insurance forms, nutrition labels and advertising, all of which tend to be written in highly technical language.

Hard-to-read documents can be difficult for anyone to understand.
Hard-to-read documents can be difficult for anyone to understand.

The level of literacy required to fully comprehend medical documents is above the reading ability of approximately 90 million adults. That means almost half of the U.S. adult population has trouble with using the available health information to make well-informed decisions. Additionally, 40 million adults don't have the ability to read these technical texts at all. Health literacy depends on more than an individual's level of education. Communication skills, existing knowledge on health topics and culture all play key roles as well.2

How health literacy affects your well-being
Just as you might speak with a real estate agent and research a neighborhood before making a home purchase, decisions about your well-being need to be grounded in facts and comprehension. Without the ability to fully understand the resources provided, there's no way that can happen.

When people are misinformed about the body or have a hazy understanding of health, they may make behavioral decisions that could be detrimental to their well-being. For example, the first important epidemiological studies about the relationship between smoking and lung cancer were released in the 1950s.3 Since the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health was released in 1964, the rate of adults who smoke has been on an overall decline.4,5 As people became better informed about how harmful smoking is to health, more of the population opted to kick the habit. This reveals that information can be powerful but only if it's understood.

Connection to dental health
The problem with health literacy reaches into all medical fields, including oral health. A study published in the Journal of Dental Education evaluated adult patients' ability to understand dental communication tools, specifically a dental school clinic website and a patient education brochure regarding sedating children for dental procedures. The study revealed that dental associations need a more health-literate approach to medical communication that allows for better comprehension, even though the documents used had only a ninth-grade reading level. Health literacy was dependent mostly on ethnicity and education rather than gender or age. Dental patients come from all walks of life, so the medical information needs to be understandable for any level.

Though this study only takes into account the communication methods at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Dentistry, the same thinking applies to all mediums that communicate dental care information. From blogs to brochures, if the language isn't comprehensible, the important facts won't be conveyed, and the public can't make informed decisions about oral care.

"Take care of your smile and overall well-being by improving your health literacy."

Improving dental health literacy
It's a common misconception that sufficient oral health only plays a role in what's going on in the mouth. However, keeping up with a solid oral hygiene routine can reduce your risk of mouth pain and irritation, which can affect your quality of life. Additionally, oral infections are linked to heart and lung disease, stroke, diabetes and neurological issues.6 While you may not mind a less-than-perfect smile, serious illnesses like these are probably not on anyone's agenda. Therefore, it is imperative that you take steps to better understand dental health so you can make educated decisions.

While it's clear that dental professionals need to adapt their medical information to suit a wide variety of reading levels, that large-scale transition won't happen immediately. However, that doesn't change the fact that you need to take care of your mouth on a daily basis. Maintain your smile and overall well-being by improving your health literacy with these tips:

  • Take advantage of dentist appointments to ask questions about daily oral hygiene.
  • Stay informed with reader-friendly dental blogs.
  • Review highly technical documents with your dentist or a staff member at the dental office.

By staying informed, you can take control of your dental health and well-being. Don't let medical jargon deter you from being proactive about your smile.

1. "Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion," Lynn Nielsen-Bohlman, Allison M. Panzer, David A. Kindig, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, April 8, 2004.

2. "Quick Guide to Health Literacy," U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

3. "Tobacco Timeline: The Twentieth Century 1950 - 1999--The Battle is Joined," Gene Borio,

4. "Reflecting on 50 Years of Progress," on 50 Years of Progress

5. "Trends in Current Cigarette Smoking Among High School Students and Adults, United States, 1965–2011," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

6. "The Critical Link Between Oral Health and Overall Well-Being," Dr. Ken Szainwald, D.D.S.


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