Low Literacy Impacts Health Care Decisions

April 9, 2004 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Low levels of literacy might have a significant impact on the ability for plan participants to understand the health-care information being presented to them.

Lower literacy skills pervade a number of health-care related topics; from difficulty understanding informed consent forms to comprehending diagnoses and medication instructions for both the participant and dependants. Additionally, a low literacy level means participants are less likely to be knowledgeable about the health effects of afflictions such as diabetes and asthma, and post-operative care, according to a report released by Carolyn Clancy, M.D., director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), commissioned by the request of the American Medical Association (AMA).

The problem is widespread. The study found there to be 90 million adults with lower-than-average reading skills who have the potential to be less likely than other Americans to get the necessary health-care treatments. Further, the report finds they are more likely to be hospitalized, which may be because physicians are concerned about the patients’ abilities to follow basic instructions and care for themselves at home when they are sick.

Plan sponsors are in a position to offer assistance. The review found evidence suggesting that interventions such as easy-to-read guides and other comprehension aids can at least improve the outcome of knowledge for both lower- and higher-literacy patients.

To assist plan sponsors and health-care professionals in aiding participants with lower literacy levels, the AHRQ developed several low-literacy publications aimed at helping people avoid medical errors, take medications safely, and obtain appropriate preventive services. These publications can be found on AHRQ’s Web site at http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/pathqpack.htm .

“Health literacy is the currency of success for everything that we do in primary and preventive medicine,” said Surgeon General Richard Carmona. “Health literacy can save lives, save money, and improve the health and well-being of millions of Americans. All of us – government, academia, health care professionals, corporations, communities, and consumers – working together can bridge the gap between what health professionals know and what patients understand, and thereby improve the health of all Americans.”