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4 Tips For Increasing Your Health Literacy, From A Medical Researcher

Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D
Researcher By Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D
Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D, is a researcher, consultant, and speaker, who studies medical decision-making in a humanistic way. She received her PhD in psychology, was a researcher at Princeton University, and taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
I Research Medical Decision-Making: 4 Tips To Improve Your Health Literacy
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Right now, we are all required to make health choices: To wear a mask indoors? To go back to the office? To send our kids to school? These choices are not going to end anytime soon, so how do you make the best of them? You must figure out how to navigate these decisions in an informed way: in other words, increase your health literacy.

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As a medical decision-making expert who spent the past two decades dealing with health choices in research and industry, I recognize that you likely need reassurance that you're fully surveying all evidence before making a choice and that no crucial piece of information is escaping you. To achieve this objective, follow these four tips from psychology and behavioral economics:


1. Forget System 1.

We use two different kinds of thought processes when making decisions: System 1 and System 2, as Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman defines them. System 1 is fast and effortless, mainly based on emotion and signals. It's easy—almost too easy. System 1 helps us proceed with life without giving it too much thought: a useful thing when you're choosing a sandwich but a lot less useful when you are trying to assess how to care for your health.

System 1 is compelling, but it can also be misleading. Whenever I'm on TV, for example, I notice the interviewer's tone and facial expressions. Sometimes they radiate panic, which is good for making headlines but drowns out the information I'm trying to convey. Viewers must be picking up on this System 1 cue, and freak out, regardless of what I'm saying.

In these cases, you need to rely on System 2: the deliberate, effortful, and slower way of thinking, based on calculations, data, facts, and figures.   

2. Get your head out of your echo chamber. 

Confirmation bias is our tendency to stick with the first idea we have; it causes us to look for information that supports what we're already thinking and to discredit evidence that does not support our opinions or convictions. But sticking with what you know might actually be dangerous.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, social media can be a hotbed of misinformation. Making sure you're not missing anything means opening your mind up to conflicting views that might grate on your nerves and make you uncomfortable. Rather than tuning out, I suggest you let it marinate. 


3. Ask for clarification.

Medical information is complicated; otherwise, doctors would spend weeks, not decades, training. And face it: Most of us aren't doctors.

The best way to be informed is by asking your doctor or looking at a credible online source. And I say "credible," because, according to research, more than half of the 20 most-shared articles on Facebook with the word "cancer" in the headline have been discredited by doctors and health authorities. Asking and doubting don't make you appear ignorant or dumb—it makes you powerfully proactive.

4.  Use your judgment and acknowledge the element of uncertainty. 

Who doesn't like certainty? Unfortunately, life doesn't always present us with a clear-cut reality. Sometimes it throws probabilities at us, and we pretend they are certainties. This happens to me, too.

One day I planned to meet a University of Cambridge colleague at the botanical gardens. The forecast that morning indicated a 30% chance of rain, so I said I'd bring an umbrella. He shrugged and we joined forces to dismiss the possibility of rain and chose to keep our plans outdoors. The worst-case scenario here was getting wet.

When your health is at stake, however, the worst-case scenario can be much worse. If only you could know for sure—but you can't! That's why it's called judgment under uncertainty.

In cases of uncertainty, use any data that's available effectively to bolster your well-being. Take whatever research you can find, acknowledge what it tells you and what it cannot tell you; then do with that what you choose.


The takeaway.

Implement these strategies to make the best medical choices you can. Even if you end up sticking with your initial decision, you now know you have cutting-edge science by your side. Your life—and your peace of mind—depend on it.


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