What you don't know can hurt you: Report addresses widespread gaps in health literacy, shows how to bridge them

August 3, 2012, University of California, San Francisco

Is it possible for a health care system to redesign its services to better educate patients to deal with their immediate health issues and also become more savvy consumers of medicine in the long run?

The answer is yes, according to a study led by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and San Francisco General Hospital and (SFGH) that was recently reported by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

The team's paper describes ten attributes that should utilize to make it easier for people to better navigate information, make sense of services and better manage their own health -- assistance for which there is a profound societal need.

Some 77 millions people in the United States have difficulty understanding even very basic health information, which clouds their ability to follow doctors' recommendations, and millions more simply lack the skills necessary to make clear, informed decisions about their own , said senior author Dean Schillinger, MD, a UCSF professor of medicine, chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine at SFGH, and director of the Health Communications Program the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations at SFGH.

"Depending on how you define it, nearly half the U.S. population has poor health ," he said.

"Over the last two decades, we have focused on what patients can do to improve their health literacy," he said. "In this report, we look at the other side of the health literacy coin, and focus on what health care systems can do."

Emerging from an IOM Roundtable that brought together leaders from academia, industry, government agencies, non-profit organizations and patient and consumer interest groups, the new paper examines the programs, practices, attitudes and attributes of organizations that create environments that foster health literacy.

Why Health Literacy is So Important

The importance of enhancing health literacy has been demonstrated by numerous clinical studies over the years, said Schillinger, many of them carried out at UCSF. Health literacy is linked directly to patient wellness. People who are adept at understanding health information tend to make better choices, are better able to self-manage their chronic conditions, and have significantly better outcomes than people who do not.

Adults with low health literacy may find it especially difficult to navigate the healthcare system, and are more likely to have higher rates of serious medication errors, more emergency room visits and hospitalizations, gaps in their preventative care, increased likelihood of dying, and even poorer health outcomes for their children.

A number of health policy organizations have recognized that health literacy not only is important to individuals, but also benefits society because helping patients help themselves is an important pathway to keeping down health care costs. Successful self-management reduces disease complications and can cut down on unnecessary emergency room visits and eliminate other wasteful spending

Organizations that promote proper health literacy tend to do certain things very well. The ten attributes in the report include items such as:

  • Making improving health literacy a priority at every level of the organization;
  • Measuring health literacy and using those measurements to guide their practices;
  • Taking into account the particular needs of the populations they serve;
  • Avoiding stigmatizing people who lack health literacy;
  • Providing easy access to and assistance navigating services;
  • Distributing easy-to-understand information across print, audiovisual, and social media channels;
  • Taking into account when discussing medicines or in other high-risk situations by using proven educational techniques, such as the teach-back method;
  • Training the healthcare workforce in health communication techniques; and
  • Letting patients know what their insurance policies cover and what they are themselves responsible for paying.

Explore further: Poor literacy skills linked to increased mortality risk among older people

More information: A complete description of ten attributes that define health-literate health care organizations can be found at the following links:

The report, "Ten Attributes of Health Literate Health Care Organizations" by Cindy Brach, Debra Keller, Lyla M. Hernandez, Cynthia Baur, Ruth Parker, Benard Dreyer, Paul Schyve, Andrew J. Lemerise, and Dean Schillinger was published by the IOM in June 2012.

See: iom.edu/Global/Perspectives/20 … thLitAttributes.aspx

And: www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=13402&page=69

Related Stories

Poor literacy skills linked to increased mortality risk among older people

March 15, 2012
One in three older people who have difficulty reading and understanding basic health related information may be at increased risk of death, concludes a study published in the British Medical Journal today.

Many dialysis patients may not understand important health information

May 5, 2011
Many patients on dialysis may not understand medical information critical to their wellbeing, according to a study appearing in an upcoming issue of the Clinical Journal of the American Society Nephrology (CJASN). The results ...

Health literacy tests underutilized; may improve elderly cancer patients' care and outcomes

April 29, 2011
Low health literacy is a significant barrier to quality care, especially among elderly patients, but increased use of simple and effective health literacy assessment tests by nurses and clinicians can help improve communication ...

Nonprofit health organizations increase health literacy through social media

May 4, 2011
As the presence of social media continues to increase as a form of communication, health organizations are searching for the most effective ways to use the online tools to pass important information to the public. Now, researchers ...

Recommended for you

Women run faster after taking newly developed supplement, study finds

January 19, 2018
A new study found that women who took a specially prepared blend of minerals and nutrients for a month saw their 3-mile run times drop by almost a minute.

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.

Sleep better, lose weight?

January 17, 2018
(HealthDay)—Sleeplessness could cost you when it's time to stand on your bathroom scale, a new British study suggests.

Who uses phone apps to track sleep habits? Mostly the healthy and wealthy in US

January 16, 2018
The profile of most Americans who use popular mobile phone apps that track sleep habits is that they are relatively affluent, claim to eat well, and say they are in good health, even if some of them tend to smoke.

Improvements in mortality rates are slowed by rise in obesity in the United States

January 15, 2018
With countless medical advances and efforts to curb smoking, one might expect that life expectancy in the United States would improve. Yet according to recent studies, there's been a reduction in the rate of improvement in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.