A series of news reports linking bacon and colorectal cancer caught the attention of Kathryn Houk, the health literacy & community engagement librarian at the UNLV Health Sciences Library, back in 2019.
“The CNN headline read: Eating just one slice of bacon a day linked to higher risk of colorectal cancer, says study, and that really stuck with me, because like a lot of people, I really enjoy the occasional few slices of bacon!” said Houk. “However, when reading past the headline, I found out a lot more information that made me less scared to enjoy an occasional indulgence.”
That sensational headline inspired the name of Houk’s health literacy workshop being offered as part of a virtual series by the UNLV Libraries. Here Houk discusses the importance of health literacy and gives a preview of how to navigate the numerous and complex health-rated stories published each year.
What is health literacy?
One definition of health literacy is people's capacity to find, understand, and use health information and services created for the public. An individual’s health literacy is affected by a lot of things, including their education level; how well they understand English; how well they understand numbers, ratios, and statistics; their cultural and personal beliefs; their age or cognitive functioning capacity; and even how much stress they feel in the moment when receiving health information. A person highly educated outside of a health setting won’t necessarily have high health literacy, and anyone’s literacy might be negatively impacted if they’ve just been given a major medical diagnosis.
Why is health literacy important?
Low health literacy is linked to lower use of preventative care and higher use of high-cost health care services like emergency room visits and hospitalizations. People with low health literacy also tend to have a higher rate of death and overall worse outcomes from chronic conditions such as diabetes and asthma. All of these outcomes are preventable when low health literacy is addressed from both social and communications interventions.
As a librarian, why are you so committed to health literacy education?
Health literacy is tied strongly to both information literacy and social equity issues, which are passions that I have from both my career as an academic librarian and my interests and master’s degree in public health. Solving social issues around income, education, housing, and access to health care would increase health literacy across the U.S. population. However, providing opportunities for students to practice the critical reasoning skills presented through information literacy instruction — and applying the statistical knowledge they learn in the classroom to real-world situations — are instrumental in improving health literacy, too.
Knowing which resources to rely on for health information can also improve the public’s health. Our reliance on Google means most people are finding health information from misleading news headlines, nutritional or wellness sites misleading the public to make a profit, for-profit medical information sites, or directly from scientific articles they may not be able to interpret correctly.
Where can I find credible health information?
A great resource from the National Library of Medicine is the website MedlinePlus.org. This nonprofit site focuses on providing information based on the best evidence available and at a level and depth the general public can understand. All of the pages are also available in Spanish. There are several other sites with credible information, but MedlinePlus is a great first stop if you have questions about a specific diagnosis, treatment, or health trend.
Why is health reporting often hard to understand?
First, the purpose of headlines is to grab your attention, and so reporters often sensationalize findings from a single study to draw readers in. The risk increase reported in these types of news articles seem significant, and they often come from a peer-reviewed, high-sample study. But if readers spend a bit of time to dig a bit deeper, they can learn the study was done on cell lines or mice, or that the statistics are being reported in a misleading way. Careful reading and learning about common reporting “tricks” can lead to a better understanding of the science and more informed personal health decisions.
For example, in the bacon story, the reporting from CNN focused on a statistic called “relative risk.” It stated that eating processed meats, like bacon and ham, increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 20 percent. Most scientists and reporters use relative risk in their writing, but this is not a useful statistic for people to make decisions around because it is comparing the change in risk between one sample group and another.
“Absolute risk” is usually a more useful statistic for the public when they need to make personal decisions about their health. The absolute risk looks at the number from the study group against the total population. In this particular study, the change in absolute risk is that 40 out of 100,000 people develop colorectal cancer if they eat 21 grams of processed meat every day, which increases to 48 out of 100,000 people developing colorectal cancer if they eat 76 grams of processed meat every day. In this example, you see concrete numbers, but it’s important to note that this is a change between a group that eats a little processed meat every day and a group that eats a moderate amount of processed meat every day. If you don’t eat processed meats every day, or even more than one actual serving a day, this statistic doesn’t have much impact on you.
Depending on how much the above statistics scare you, this study points to a couple of eating habits that can improve your health: you probably should not eat red or processed meat every day, but if you choose to do so, only a third of the regularly recommended amount of daily meat consumption should come from red or processed meats.
What else should I consider when reading health news?
It is always important to read beyond the headline in health news. Try to find the original source material and ask: Who conducted the study and why? Is it funded by special interest groups? Was the study done on humans? If done on cell lines or mice, it may not have as large an effect when studied in humans. How large was the sample size and what are the characteristics of the people in the sample? The larger the sample size, the better, and the more representative of the general population the sample, the more the results can be generalized. If you are still confused, going to a trusted source of information like MedlinePlus, or speaking with a librarian who can guide you to other resources, is also a good option.