Health Literacy and Public Health Campaigns

Todd Vandenbark

Health literacy logoResearchers at the University of Texas at Austin recently examined “public perceptions of health literacy within the context of discussions of proposed government regulation of acetaminophen. Regulation was being proposed because many consumers unintentionally overdosed on acetaminophen and damaged their liver, not realizing the drug was in both their prescription and their over-the-counter pain relievers” (from the UT News blog). As noted in the University’s news blog:

The study revealed that many people overestimate the health literacy of the average health care consumer. Many linked intelligence to health literacy, suggesting people who overdosed on acetaminophen were “stupid” and deserved the outcome.

This is reflective of a wider practice in society: blaming the victim. If something bad happens to someone, they probably deserved it. Our culture, politicians, mainstream media, and even our justice system characterize the unemployed as “lazy,” victims of rape having “asked for it,” and so on. This absolves us of any group responsibility for the troubles that plague our society.

While the results of this study are not surprising, it is important advice to heed: no one wants to change their behavior after being blamed or looked-down upon. If public health campaigns want to improve health outcomes and reduce the costs to our healthcare system, it would be wise to choose positive language.