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Health Literacy - Get The Facts, Then Own What You Know

What keeps people from making their best and healthiest choices? It's a question I've been asking, on and off the record, for years. I even wrote the book on it! [Word Cures: How to Keep Stupid Excuses From Sabotaging Your Health]

Well, now "my" question is in the news. The British Medical Journal reported just this week that people who follow their doctor's prescribed drug treatment have better health outcomes overall than those who don't.[1] It's interesting to note that the researchers found this true even when the doctor had prescribed a placebo.

In the background information for the story, the researchers point to an already demonstrated fact that one in four patients do not follow their doctors' recommendations. The big question, to me and as it turns out, to the researchers, is this: "What's the difference between the people who choose healthier behaviors and those who don't? And how can we all get on the winning team?"

The researchers suggest that the more compliant patients make better health choices across the board, and that taking pills as recommended is simply a visible marker for health behavior. Sounds like a reasonable theory, but it doesn't answer the "What?"

  • What makes 75% of us discount our doctors' advice when it comes to taking prescribed medication?
  • What makes 93% of us fail to consistently choose healthy lifestyle behaviors like healthy food and exercise? [2]

Drawing from the current research and other sources, here are some key ideas:

  1. The person may not trust their health care system or pharmaceutical solutions in general. Conflicting information and media reports have led people to question the health information they're given by those in the "medical establishment." People do generally trust an individual doctor with whom they have an established relationship. [3]
  2. The person may be experiencing unpleasant side effects of the medication
  3. The person may be depressed
  4. The person may simply be overwhelmed by life stress, lacking in necessary personal or financial support
  5. The person may not understand their situation, condition, or alternatives well. The official term for this is "health literacy," which is defined as "the degree to which individuals can obtain, process, and understand the basic health information and services they need to make appropriate health decisions." [4]

If these ideas are valid, then by listening to them, we have also the seeds of change for building healthier lifestyles. Here are the steps I see:

  1. Find a physician you can trust as the core member of your health care team, preferably before you have a problem that urgently requires his or her assistance. When something does come up, you won't have to shop around in a panic.
  2. Develop effective strategies for managing everyday choices that, if unaddressed, could lead to stress.
  3. Learn the basics of healthy living so you'll be in a position to make empowered choices on your own behalf.

Pretty simple when you look at it clearly, isn't it? Those simple steps will lead to the situation described by Betty Chewning (of the Sonderegger Research Institute, School of Pharmacy, University of Wisconsin-Madison) in a commentary to the British Medical Journal article. She speaks clearly for "treatment regimens that patients agree to, believe in, and will sustain over time." [5]

Isn't that pretty much what we all, health providers and patients alike, want?

Get your healthy living questions answered at

[1] BMJ Volume 333, 1 July 2006.

[2] Healthy Lifestyle Characteristics Among Adults in the United States, 2000. Arch Intern Med. 2005; 165:854-857, April 25, 2005.

[3-a] Crisis of Confidence. Harvard Public Health Review, Fall 2004.

[3-b] Interpreting News on Diet. Harvard School of Public Health.

[4] Health Literacy. The Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences.

[5] BMJ Volume 333, 1 July 2006.

Elizabeth Eckert can help you explore how simple everyday choices create health - or undermine even the best of intentions. With a background that ranges from energy medicine to structural bodywork to developmental psychology, this "Stick-To-It Coach" has the experience to support you in creating the healthiest possible expression of — you.

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