90 million adults with poor reading skills are at risk

Outcomes, health care literacy of patients linked

Adults with lower than average reading skills are less likely than other Americans to get potentially life-saving screening tests, be vaccinated for flu and pneumonia, and take their children for well-child physician visits, according to a report by the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Another report, by the Institute of Medicine concludes that low health literacy — the ability to read, understand, and act on health information — costs the health care system more than $58 billion annually.

The AHRQ study also found that people with lower literacy skills are likely to have difficulty understanding informed consent forms and comprehending their children’s diagnoses and medication instructions. They are less likely than other Americans to be knowledgeable about the health effects of smoking, diabetes, asthma, AIDS, and postoperative care.

The Partnership for Clear Health Communication, a national coalition of organizations working for solutions to low health literacy, has developed an action agenda identifying a number of recommendations:

  • Educating patients and providers about health literacy.
  • Developing and applying practical solutions to improve patient-provider communication.
  • Conducting nationally coordinated research to further define the health literacy issue and evaluation solutions.
  • Increasing support for health literacy policy and funding.

The organization’s first initiative is Ask Me 3, which presents three simple questions that patients should ask providers in every health care setting. They are: What is my main problem? What do I need to do? Why is it important for me to do this?

The American Medical Association Foundation plans to convene a summit meeting in 2005 to address improving health literacy in clinical settings.

For more details on health care literacy, see the following web sites: www.AskMe3.org; www. amafoundation.org; www.ahrq.gov.