Nearly half of all American adults--90 million people--have difficulty understanding and using health information, and there is a higher rate of hospitalization and use of emergency services among patients with limited health literacy, says a report from the Institute of Medicine titled Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion. Limited health literacy may lead to billions of dollars in avoidable health care costs.
More than a measurement of reading skills, health literacy also includes writing, listening, speaking, arithmetic, and conceptual knowledge. Health literacy is defined as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic information and services needed to make appropriate decisions regarding their health. At some point, most individuals will encounter health information they cannot understand. Even well educated people with strong reading and writing skills may have trouble comprehending a medical form or doctor's instructions regarding a drug or procedure.
A concerted effort by the public health and health care systems, the education system, the media, and health care consumers is needed to improve the nation's health literacy, the report says. If patients cannot comprehend needed health information, attempts to improve the quality of care and reduce health care costs and disparities may fail.
The report recommends that health care systems should develop and support programs to reduce the negative effects of limited health literacy and that health knowledge and skills be incorporated into the existing curricula of kindergarten through 12th grade classes, as well as into adult education and community programs. Furthermore, programs to promote health literacy, health education, and health promotion programs should be developed with involvement from the people who will use them. And all such efforts must be sensitive to cultural and language preferences.