Health Literacy

Poor Health Literacy Impacts Patients and Economy

(This week I am featuring several posts from my intern, Stephanie Cohen. On Monday I published a special tribute post to Stephanie. You can find that post at She has been a remarkable intern and has contributed frequently to this blog. Here’s another of the final posts she wrote before graduating last weekend from the University of North Carolina.)

A recent article by The Journal Gazette looks at the lack of health literacy among Americans.  According to Sandra G. Boodman (special to The Washington Post) , Americans’ low level of health literacy is “one of the most pervasive and underrecognized problems in medicine.”  This is frightening…and so are the statistics.  A 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that 36 percent of adults have only basic or below-basic skills when it comes to understanding discharge instructions and other health materials.  In other words, 90 million Americans can only comprehend discharge instructions at the same level as a fifth grader or younger.

According to the article, “Studies have linked poor health literacy, which disproportionately affects the elderly, the poor and recent immigrants, to higher rates of hospital readmission, expensive and unnecessary complications, and even death.” The result of poor health literacy has cost the U.S. economy as much as $238 billion yearly.  Thankfully, more and more hospitals and health plans are utilizing computer software that searches for technical language in materials distributed to patients and suggests ways to simplify the wording.  Additionally, some hospitals and clinics are using videos or handouts with lots of graphics.

You can read more on The Journal Gazette’s website:

This article shines light on an often overlooked issue in medicine.  The ability to understand a doctor’s orders is critical to the health of a patient.  Healthcare professionals should make it their duty to not only ensure that all health materials are written in plain-language, but also make certain that patients understand a doctor’s orders before being discharged.  We are lucky to be in a time in which healthcare technological innovations are thriving; it’s important that patients are not left behind in this time of great advancement.

For more, you can read Sandra B. Boodman’s article on health literacy here:

Post by Stephanie Cohen, UNC-Chapel Hill Student and Jennings Intern

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