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Wednesday, December 19, 2007 5:00 PM

Research News: Health Literacy and Understanding Health Information

Rand: Nearly half of all American adults have difficulty understanding and using health information. In today’s segment on Navigating the Health Care System, we take a closer look at health literacy. With us is AHRQ Director Dr. Carolyn Clancy, thanks for being here.

Dr. Clancy: My pleasure.

Rand: Can you first start out by explaining health literacy.

Dr. Clancy: Health literacy is how well people understand and can evaluate information about their health and about health care options to make good decisions. It’s very important to understand that health literacy is not just the ability to read. People need to be able to describe their symptoms accurately and to describe their health concerns. In many ways, good communication is an essential part of health literacy.

Rand: Are there any particular segments of our population who have particular problems with health literacy?

Dr. Clancy: Typically, we see more limited health literacy among older adults, minorities, immigrants, poor families, and people with chronic mental and physical conditions. However, it’s really important to know that people, anyone can have difficulty with complex health information. Even well-educated people with strong reading and writing skills may have trouble understanding information and instructions about a medication or medical procedure that they’re going to have.

Rand: What are the greatest risks with not understanding your health information?

Dr. Clancy: Limited health literacy can literally harm a person’s health. Limited literacy plays an important role in health disparities and may contribute to lower quality care and even to medical errors. We have found that adults with lower-than-average reading skills and limited understanding of English are less likely than other Americans to get potentially life-saving screening tests such as mammograms and pap smears, to get flu and pneumonia vaccines, and to take their children for well-child care visits. AHRQ research also shows that people with limited literacy skills and limited understanding of English are more likely to have difficulty understanding informed consent forms, understanding their children’s diagnoses and following medication instructions.

Rand: So what can clinicians do to help bridge the gap for those with lower health literacy levels?

Dr. Clancy: First, it’s important for providers to identify patients with limited literacy levels and tailor their care and instructions to ensure that patients understand medical information. Use simple language, shorter sentences and define technical terms. Clinicians can also offer patients assistance with completing complex forms, and work with patients to find a translator if there’s a language barrier.

Rand: One final question for you. What can patients who are concerned about their health literacy do to get better health care?

Dr. Clancy: Ask questions! Then, make sure you get and understand the answers you need so that you fully understand your health information. Provide your clinician with enough information about your symptoms and medical history so that she can give you good care. In some cases, it might be helpful to have another adult with you, especially if there’s a language barrier or if you would like someone to advocate on your behalf, to speak up about your concerns. Overall, you want to promote good healthy communication with your doctor. This will go a long way to promoting your health literacy and, ultimately, your health. You need to be active in your health care and talk to everyone who takes care of you.

Rand: Dr. Carolyn Clancy, thank you for being with us.

Dr. Clancy: You’re welcome.

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