Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Low health literacy has a negative impact on a patients health status and use of the health care system. Patients with low health literacy levels cannot make decisions regarding their health care or follow instructions on medications and health maintenance behaviors. This can affect health care in a variety of ways.
It is the health care provider’s responsibility to ensure that patients with low health literacy levels are identified and measures are taken to ensure those patients understand their options and instructions. To educate these patients, health care providers need to develop resources that are easily understood and interview skills that can ensure patient comprehension. Research has shown that patients with a low health literacy level may be more likely to have problems following verbal or written medical advice and medication instructions or understanding health-related materials.
This review discusses the commonness of health literacy and its impact on patients and the health care system, and provides recommendations for creating supplemental literature at the appropriate level. The use of these tools and improved physician interview skills will establish a better physician/patient relationship and continue to encourage patient participation in the health care process. By providing the patients with the basic knowledge to understand and adhere to the instructions given to them and the confidence to communicate any questions or concerns, the hospital is promoting a better patient/physician relationship.
There was a study conducted in 2003 by the National Assessment on Adult Literacy that was released in 2006 that included a Health Literacy component that evaluated patient’s health literacy in three main categories: clinical, preventative, and navigation of the health care system. These three categories were designed to reflect things that patients would see or be asked to do in their daily lives. There were examples such as following medication instructions, scheduling health screening tests and finding one’s way to the appropriate location for a medical appointment within a health care facility.
The results of this study indicated that 36-38 of adults in the United States had a basic or below health literacy level or were not literate in English and could not participate in the assessment. Another 55% of U. S. adults reported having a mid-range level of health literacy which showed room for improvement. Patients who have low health literacy levels often are not able to comprehend and follow the instructions on a medication bottle or determine the dosage information on over-the-counter medications.
The inability to understand the information requested on a health care form can prevent an individual from having adequate health care coverage or having access to care when it is needed. If a patient does not have the ability to identify when treatment is needed for a medical condition, make the appointment and navigate through the health care system to be treated, their health can suffer. By not seeking medical attention at the beginning of an illness or not accessing the appropriate point of entry in a health care clinic, the patient is reducing the chance of having a positive health outcome.
People with lower health literacy may wait to seek medical attention rather than utilizing preventative health services. These patients often have higher rates of admission and use services that are designed for more critical patient care. When faced with a disease or health care condition, patients are often turning to a variety of places for health information such as the internet, magazines, or books. Adults with basic or below basic health literacy levels did not turn to such resources.
Physicians are with a patient such a short amount of time at each visit, yet they have so much they need to provide to the patient. At a visit to the physician several new concepts are being introduced to the adult such as discontinuing a the use of a current prescription, modification of the prescribed dose, or introducing a new medicine. It is of great importance to verify that the patient understands what is being said to them. Asking the patient to demonstrate what they just heard is more effective in gauging whether a patient understands the information.
There can be additional time spend with patients, or supplemental materials can be provided to patients who have difficulty processing this critical information. Other factors that can have a negative impact on a person’s comprehension of health-related materials include limited English language skills, chronic health conditions, hearing problems, or vision problems. In order for patients to be able to most effectively use these health education materials, they should be written at lower reading levels using simple words and pictures to emphasize points.
Low health literacy is a problem that continues grow in patients in the health care system, contributing to a lack of use of services, often leading to negative health outcomes. Hospitals should focus attention on their forms and the health education materials they are distributing to the patients to ensure that there materials are appropriate for all levels of health literacy. Having forms that are more easily understood may increase a patient’s ability to access and utilize appropriate hospital services.
Also by giving patients more appropriate health education materials will encourage them to become more actively involved in their care by providing them with the confidence to make decisions about their treatment. As the individual relationship is built between patient and care team, the trust will follow to ask questions about information that is not clear and seek assistance when it is first needed instead of when it is a critical situation. DeMarco, Joanna. ( 2011, Spring). The Importance of Patient Education Throughout the Cotinuum of Health Care. 295-301. Journal of Consumer Health. Retrieved April 4, 2012 from EBSCOhost.
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