Center for Health Literacy Promotion - Action research for effective use of health info & services
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Center for Health Literacy Promotion Blog

Promote Health literacy AND empowerment

The Center for Health Literacy Promotion uses the World Health Organization  (1998) definition of health literacy, adapted to be specific to maternal health literacy by Renkert and Nutbeam (2000): the cognitive and social skills which determine a mother’s motivation and ability to gain access to, understand, and use information in ways that promote or maintain her health and that of her child.  This definition implies that empowerment is an aspect of health literacy since it includes using information in ways that promote health, which requires motivation and planned action to gain control over family health. According to the W.H.O., health empowerment means gaining control of one’s health and its determinants
I’ve been saying and writing that the clinical definition of health literacy dominant in the US leaves out the empowerment aspects of health literacy because it is purely cognitive and omits action  ... ability to obtain, process and understand information needed to make appropriate health decisions.  In this view,It is generally assumed that understanding leads to action; that “knowledge is power”. 
Knowledge is power only for the empowered
This assumption that knowledge equates to power makes health literacy and empowerment conjoined twins.  In a new, must-read article from Patient Education and Counseling, Schultz and Nakamoto make clear the importance of separating the two concepts, although their effects are deeply intertwined.  The authors point out that ability to obtain, process and understand health information is not necessarily empowering. And, just as a literate person may not understand health information, an empowered person also may not understand.
Health literacy without empowerment makes people unnecessarily dependent on health professionals.  Conversely, empowerment without health literacy can lead to uninformed or misinformed potentially dangerous health decisions.  The authors conclude that heath communications programs need to simultaneously address both health literacy and health empowerment - as the Beginnings Guides curriculum and training do.
Schultz PJ & Nakamoto K. Health literacy and patient empowerment in health communication: The importance of separating conjoined twins. Patient Education and Counseling; 2013; 90:4-11.
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