Health Literacy

Improving Health Literacy for Young Adults (Older Ones, Too)

As summer winds down, stories with health advice for students about to leave home for college begin to appear. Engaging Patients has participated in this trend in the past, encouraging young adults to become health literate. Engaging with young healthcare consumers will help them develop knowledge and confidence, leading to improved health and self-efficacy.

This year, the pandemic adds a new dimension and some urgency to stories aimed at preparing young adults to live away from home and take responsibility for their own healthcare. Quoting a pediatrician, New York Times columnist Catherine Newman argues [paywall] that the pandemic is a “’golden opportunity’ for helping teenagers to practice self-care and self-advocacy skills.” She urges adolescents to think about serious issues such as how to navigate privacy and confidentiality and offers links to resources for state-by-state regulations related to reproductive health. She also wisely suggests teens begin at a young age to develop experience and confidence by talking directly – privately when possible – with doctors “without their parents butting in.”

In addition to discussing health insurance coverage and the etiquette for appointment cancellations (including a handy script to follow), Newman recommends that parents talk with teenagers about what to do if they become sick — for example, they should know the hours of the college infirmary and memorize their parents’ phone numbers in case they become separated from their phones. In addition to a good supply of face masks and hand sanitizer, college students will want to add a thermometer to their kit, if they don’t have one already.

Teens aren’t the only ones in need of COVID-19 tactics and communication strategies. Adults, too, have been learning new ways to foster healthy behaviors. This summer, many of us have been feeling our way through talking with friends and family members about risk-taking. How do we each feel about gathering with a friend or two for a socially distanced barbecue? To mask or not to mask? Who else have you been seeing? Who does your babysitter spend time with?

Interviewed on National Public Radio in July, Ina Park, a physician who treats people with sexually transmitted infections, observed that people engaging in COVID-19 “bubbles” or “pods” are having conversations similar to those among individuals negotiating safe sex relationships.” Those are conversations that some of us were used to having in the past and have not had for a long time,” said Park. “Now, suddenly, we’re having to have these awkward, safe sex-type conversations with all types of people that you wouldn’t ordinarily have to have these conversations with.”

The pandemic is forcing all of us — young and old — to recalibrate our approach to making healthy choices, giving a new perspective to conversations among families and friends about what we each need to know and consider as we navigate daily life with everyone’s health in mind.

Further reading

Engage Young Adults in Health Literacy; Teach Them to Take Flu Seriously

Children’s Health System Offers Health Literacy Curriculum for High School Students

Pulse Center for Patient Safety Education & Advocacy Visits Uniondale High School



Susan Carr Susan Carr is a medical editor and writer specializing in patient safety and engagement. In addition to curating the EngagingPatients blog, she produces publications for the Betsy Lehman Center in Boston and the Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine. Susan lives and works in Lunenburg, Massachusetts.

Susan Carr has 95 post(s) at EngagingPatients.org

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