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Friday, February 28, 2014

Why Health Literacy Affects YOU

One of the most important things I try to keep in mind as a physician is health literacy, or the degree to which patients can obtain, understand and process basic health information. This idea may seem arbitrary at first, but try to remember your last visit to a physician: It may have been in an emergency room or a walk-in clinic, or perhaps your primary care doctor or specialist might come to mind.  Was there a point during your visit when you didn't completely understand information that was provided to you? Did you leave the building with questions unanswered? If you later decided to look up those questions on the internet, were you unsure about which resources to use?

If so, you're not alone: the National Assessment of Adult Literacy previously reported that 88% of American adults do not have competent health literacy skills. This number is disturbing, since low health literacy has been correlated with poor personal health knowledge, poorer health status, incorrect medication use and higher rates of hospitalization. I've heard countless stories of the most extreme cases of poor health literacy: one patient placing her birth control pill in her vagina, another spraying an albuterol inhaler in front of his face and attempting to "suck the air in." Yes, of course, these are extreme cases, but for every one of these there is another occurring much less conspicuously. 

Consider a situation where a well-educated female is prescribed tetracycline, an antibiotic, to clear her acne. She fills the prescription and, upon taking the first pill, experiences extreme gastrointestinal (GI) upset. As a result, she refuses to take the medication again. This is a relatively common situation that could have been easily avoided. If the prescribing physician or the pharmacist had taken the extra few seconds to inform the patient not to take the pill with dairy food, the stomach discomfort (a major and well known side effect) could have been avoided. 

Health literacy does more than save time and money- it can also play a major role in preventing further injury or illness, or even death.  Have you or a loved one experienced a healthcare-related situation where you felt misinformed, unaware or uncomfortable? Have you ever started a fad diet, supplement or activity that was later deemed unhealthy? I invite you to please share your story in the comments below.

You haven't been in school for 11 years receiving medical training, and professionals understand this. But, with doctors now being forced to see more patients just to keep their practices afloat, they typically won't take the time to explain specific concepts and instructions unless they are prompted to do so. So, what can you do to improve your health literacy before your next visit? 

  • Don't be afraid to request that your doctor take a moment to explain a drug, prescription, blood test result or diagnosis. 
  • Know the specific function of each medication you are taking (i.e "this is my blood pressure pill, this is my water pill.") If unsure, don't be afraid to ask.
  • Use trusted resources when seeking answers to your health questions at home. I've included several reputable resources on our website
  • Keep in mind that your physician is here to help you. He or she will never get upset or offended that you are asking for clarification. 
  • Continue to follow The Daily Diagnosis, as we will keep you informed by consistently adding healthy living tips and opinions on the latest topics in healthcare.

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Health literacy and public health: a systematic review and integration of definitions and models. Sørensen K - BMC Public Health - 01-JAN-2012; 12: 80.

Literacy, cognitive function, and health: results of the LitCog study.
Wolf MS - J Gen Intern Med - 01-OCT-2012; 27(10): 1300-7

Low health literacy: a barrier to effective patient care.
Seurer AC - S D Med - 01-FEB-2013; 66(2): 51, 53-7