Health Literacy Spotlight
A recent Washington Post/Kaiser family foundation article offered an alarming look at many Americans’ low level of health literacy, defined by the Department of Health and Human Services as “The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand
basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”
The article cites a study released in 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Education that found that 36 percent of adults have only basic or below-basic skills for dealing with health material. This means that 90 million Americans can understand discharge instructions written only at a fifth-grade level or lower. About 52 percent had intermediate skills: they could figure out what time a medication should be taken if the label says “take two hours after eating.”
The remaining 12 percent were deemed proficient because they could search a complex document and find the information necessary to define a medical term. Adults who were ages 65 and older had lower average health literacy than adults in younger age groups. Less educated and minority groups generally had lower levels of health literacy.
The Surgeon General of the United States has also tackled this subject. Because only 12% of Americans have proficient health literacy skills, the majority of adults may have difficulty completing routine health tasks like understanding discharge instructions or diabetes care. There is a strong, independent association between health literacy and health outcomes. These outcomes include emergency department use, hospitalization, self-reported physical health, and mortality.
Interventions to mitigate the effects of low literacy in patients with chronic
conditions have been shown to improve health outcomes. In some cases, the interventions appear to be more effective for low literacy users compared with higher literacy users. A fascinating January 2011 article in the New Yorker by Dr. Atul Gawande documents this point perfectly.
The Surgeon General concludes:
- First, public health professionals must provide clear, understandable, science-based health information to the American people. In the absence of clear communication and access to services, we cannot expect people to adopt the health behaviors we champion.
- Second, the promises of medical research, health information technology, and advances in health care delivery cannot be realized without also addressing health literacy.
- Third, we need to look at health literacy in the context of large systems – social, cultural, education and the public health system. Limited health literacy is not an individual deficit but a systematic problem that should be addressed by ensuring the health care and health information systems are aligned the needs of the public.
In an era when individuals are increasingly required to fend for themselves, health literacy is indeed a public policy issue. Patient navigators and advocates obviously fulfill a vital need here. Indeed, we here at Patient Navigator help to educate and empower our clients. But the problem is massive and the resources small; there is no easy answer.