As the director of a health education program at a public university, my work is predicated upon the belief that greater knowledge is the key to improving health outcomes. If patients and healthcare professionals simply had better access to the latest information on a particular medical topic—if they simply knew more about a diagnosis, treatment, or prevention strategy—then we’d surely see improved health outcomes.
I have come to realize this assumption is wrong. More medical information does not lead to better health.
There are over 22 million citations in PubMed. Technology has brought—to both patients and healthcare professionals—the ability to access vast amounts of health information within seconds with the simply click of a computer mouse. At no other time in our species history have we had such unbridled access to information about the inner functions of the human body and its disease processes.
Yet, has this information made us healthier? Not really. Life-expectancy in the United States and other western nations is increasing; but so too are chronic conditions which negatively impact our quality-of-life. We may be living longer, but those extra years are not necessarily spent without pain and suffering. More of us are burdened with disabilities brought on by poor dietary choices, physical inactivity, obesity, smoking, alcohol abuse, high blood pressure and high blood glucose.
We spend more money in the United States per capita on health care than anyplace else and have the greatest access to health information—so we can’t blame a lack of knowledge or expenditures on our current chronic disease burden. What gives?
We have knowledge. What we need now is wisdom.
Wisdom is what allows knowledge to become actionable. Wisdom applied to healthcare is what allows our knowledge of disease and well-being to be put into practice such that it improves outcomes.
For a physician, knowledge may be acquired by reading a journal article. Wisdom is interpreting what was read in such a way that it can be incorporated into daily clinical practice. How one filters the information—the relevancy of this one journal article in the context of the millions of other pieces of information out there—that is where wisdom plays a central role in altering behavior.
For patients, knowledge may be acquired by being told by a physician that fatty foods will clog arteries and lead to disease. Wisdom is interpreting that information in such a way that better food choices are made at each and every meal.
Wisdom is what influences how we interpret and act upon information. It is as important as knowledge in affecting health outcomes. Unfortunately, our health education methods focus mainly on imparting knowledge, not elevating wisdom.
The good news is that wisdom is not an elusive individual trait—like intelligence or common sense—something that either you have it or you don’t. Wisdom can be conveyed from one person to another. It can be acquired and cultivated.
While there are many ways people can become wiser, the first step for health education is acknowledging that wisdom influences eventual health outcomes. As we look for ways to better engage patients in their healthcare, we should not overlook the necessity of being wise as a companion skill to being knowledgeable.