Difficulty Understanding Basic Health Information May Lead to Poor Health

Health Literacy is defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as “the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions”. Health literacy is a person’s ability to understand instructions on prescription drug bottles, appointment slips, medical education brochures, doctor’s directions and consent forms, and the ability to negotiate complex health care systems. Health literacy is not the ability to read. It requires a complex group of skills including reading, writing, and reasoning to understand concepts to make health behavior decisions.

Medication bottles collected in medicine cabinets across the country simply read: “Take as directed”. For those adults who have limited health literacy, or are limited in their ability to make sound health care decisions, this has little meaning. Take Charlie, for example,who has bronchitis and has been taking a swig from that cough syrup containing codeine the doctor prescribed. His caregiver discovered he was drinking straight from the bottle when she found him on the floor in his kitchen. He had been drinking the medicine staight from the bottle every couple of hours. If a little is good for you, more is better, right?

When compared to those with adequate health literacy skills, people with limited health literacy skills enter the healthcare system when they are sicker. Low health literacy skills are associated with an increase in preventable hospital visits and admissions. More than 75 million English-speaking Americans have limitations in their ability to make appropriate health care decisions. Health literacy can be improved. Patient teaching handouts, medical forms, and health web sites make it easier to understand and improve patient-provider communication.

The most important strategy for all people and especially those with limited health literacy is to have an advocate come along to doctor appointments, during short procedures and especially while in the hospital.

Health care providers must find strategies that are helpful to the people they serve. According to health.gov website on health literacy important, basic strategies include

Identify the intended users
Use pre- and post-tests including use of the <a href=”http://
“>the “teach-back method”
Limit the number of messages
Use plain language
Practice respect
Focus on behavior
Check for understanding
Supplement with pictures
Use a medically trained interpreter or translator

What is your biggest concern for someone you love who requires health care?

Do you have any additional advice?

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