The Institute of Medicine calls health literacy the “Prescription to End Confusion,” but understanding medical information is not as simple as taking a pill. As the Consumer Health Information Coordinator Michelle Eberle writes, health literacy “requires a complex group of reading, listening, analytical and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to health situations.”i
Health literacy is necessary to navigate the often mind-numbing language on prescription drug sheets, doctor consent forms and insurance plans. The ability to understand these common forms of healthcare information is often affected by age, culture, socioeconomic status and education level. And lack of communication can have negative consequences. According to Dr. Barry D. Weiss, “evidence shows that patients often misinterpret or do not understand much of the information given to them by clinicians. This lack of understanding can lead to medication errors, missed appointments, adverse medical outcomes and even malpractice lawsuits.”ii
Weiss says 89 million Americans lack the health literacy necessary to understand medical treatment and preventative care. Some of these issues are addressed in the Affordable Care Act, which contains provisions pushing doctors and insurers to clearly communicate health information, promote prevention and be patient-centered.
The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration has made available several booklets, brochures and videos addressing healthcare literacy among various populations. Health insurance plans have also made efforts to make health information more understandable to the average consumer. Insurers such as Aetna, Blue Cross and Cigna, have instituted health literacy initiatives to reach out to clinicians and patients. The insurers also try to “walk the walk,” making their own policies easier to understand.
Low health literacy is a major source of inefficiency in the American healthcare system, estimated to cost between $106 billion and $238 billion a year. Initiatives to improve patient communication can not only reduce that figure but can contribute to a healthier population.
i Michelle Eberle, “Health Literacy,” National Network of Libraries of Medicine, June 2013, http://nnlm.gov/outreach/consumer/hlthlit.html.
ii Barry D. Weiss, “Help Patients Understand,” AMA, 2007, www.ama-assn.org/ama1/pub/upload/mm/367/healthlitclinicians.pdf.