National Partnership for Women & Families

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Jennifer Sweeney, Vice President

From the desk of ... Jennifer Sweeney

Rx for Health Literacy

October is health literacy month and, as Congress debates the widespread challenges in health care, we also need to address the problem of low health literacy — an obstacle people face in doctors' offices across the country everyday and one that has a big impact on health outcomes.

According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), 90 million people in the United States, nearly half the population, lack the ability to read, understand, and act on health care information. Low health literacy skills are often a result of limited literacy skills, generally. Consider this daunting dose of reality: One out of five American adults reads at the 5th grade level or below, and the average American reads at the 8th to 9th grade level, yet most healthcare materials are written above the 10th grade level. And while low health literacy affects people of all education and income levels, older people, non-whites, immigrants, and those with low incomes are more likely to have trouble reading and understanding health-related information.

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which someone is able to obtain, process, and understand health information in order to make the best health decisions. These are the skills that everyone needs in order to do things like fill out medical and insurance forms, follow medication instructions, and understand the doctor's orders for before or after surgery.

Schools and hospitals around the country are raising awareness about health literacy month this October because the impact on individuals and families is considerable and, as usual, any stigma linked to a specific struggle will only exacerbate the problem. In this case, many patients are embarrassed to ask their health care providers to explain health information and, as a result, they are less likely to follow prescribed treatment, more likely to experience medication errors, and often don't seek preventive care. Beyond the impact on individuals and families, low health literacy takes a toll on our health care system too — adding approximately $50 to $73 billion in health care costs, according to the IOM.

The good news is that positive change is within our reach. Health care providers can help by avoiding acronyms and technical medical terminology when possible. And since one of the biggest barriers to addressing the problem is actually identifying patients who are struggling to understand health information — providers should ask every patient questions to determine if they need help.

And (not that we needed another reason besides improving health to invest in tackling this problem) we're now seeing that improving health literacy rates could also enhance people's frame of mind. According to a recent study, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Center for Education and Research on Therapeutics (CERT) and the University of Oklahoma have actually found a positive correlation between health literacy and personal levels of happiness. The study revealed that happiness scores increased steadily with higher levels of health literacy even after controlling for demographic variables, poverty levels, and self-reported health.

As we've learned during the course of the current health care debate, the solutions we need in order to improve the health and well being of families across the country come in many shapes and sizes. Broad systemic changes, many of which we've seen proposed in Congress in the past year, are going to be necessary. But those changes must be underpinned by strategies — like improving health literacy — that can help ensure patients benefit from health reform. To learn more about what you can do to help tackle the problem of low health literacy, please visit the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Health Literacy Improvement page.


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