Poor literacy skills can affect a patient’s health

In order to avoid medical malpractice and to create a better relationship with patients, doctors should be aware of patients’ literacy skills.

According to a study from 2003 conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, roughly 90 percent of adults in the country are not proficient in reading. The study was based on literacy assessments of more than 19,000 participants.

With such a high percentage of people who have problems with reading, professionals in the medical community are pointing out that poor literacy skills can also affect a patient’s ability to understand medical information provided by doctors and pharmacists. Patients might not be able to read medical forms, brochures about vaccines or directions on prescription bottles. In order to make sure that patients are aware of their medical conditions, side effects from treatments or how to correctly take their prescriptions, doctors need to focus on verbally communicating with patients and making sure that patients understand what their doctors are saying.

One doctor who wrote a manual on medical literacy said that when he first realized he was treating a patient who could not read, he was startled. The experience also made him realize that he could have treated other patients who were illiterate but never spoke up about their inability to read and understand medical information.

About 75 percent of patients who have literacy problems do not notify their physicians. And those who do have trouble reading or understanding medical information are more likely to be hospitalized as a result of a medication error or making other treatment errors as a result of not understanding their medical conditions.

A consultant of health literacy said doctors and patients need to open the doors of communication and focus on understanding each other. This can be achieved by using photographs, giving simplified explanations, showing videos, providing documents that have simple language, and reviewing and repeating key information about health conditions, surgical procedures and medications with patients.

Source: American Medical News, “The ABCs of health literacy,” Kevin B. O’Reilly, March 19, 2012

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