Physicians, pharmacists and other medical professionals all too often provide literature and instructions beyond the average patient's level of comprehension, leading to inferior outcomes and billions of dollars in unnecessary healthcare costs, a health literacy researcher says.
"There is a strong, proven correlation between low reading skills and our country's poor health status," says Gloria Mayer, president and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Advancement, La Habra, Calif. "The end result is negative medical outcomes, unnecessary extra visits to the physician and crowded hospital emergency rooms."
The institute, a 10-year-old, not-for-profit organization that consults with physician groups, hospitals and health plans on managed care and health literacy issues, says that the inability of patients to understand information from health professionals costs the U.S. health system $73 billion in avoidable expenses annually.
In a Monday press release, the organization does not cite its source for the $73 billion estimate and representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Institute for Healthcare Advancement also lists what it calls the 10 most common errors medical professionals make when communicating with patients, based on research by Mayer:
- Creating literature to accompany the taking of medications that is written at an 11th-grade reading level, rather than sixth grade or lower, the level at which the majority of the country's population reads.
- Communicating in medical jargon when it's not necessary, including using terms like "otitis media" and "myocardial infarction" instead of "ear ache" and "heart attack" when informing patients of their condition.
- Developing reading materials with a printing type that is 10 font sizes too small for the patient--particularly seniors, the country's largest patient population--to read.
- When giving verbal directions to a patient, not asking the patient to repeat the instructions back so as to guarantee that he or she clearly understands the information.
- Not recognizing that there are more than 90 million U.S. citizens who read at a third- to fifth-grade reading level.
- Not recognizing that a patient's response of "yes" or a simple nod might mean the patient is merely being polite but actually does not understand what they have just been told.
- Displaying and distributing mass-produced written brochures and bulletins in doctors' offices and clinics that staff have not read or checked through to make sure the material is up to date and in line with their own medical policies and recommendations.
- Talking too quickly to the patient and not allowing time for the patient to ask questions in response.
- Not providing medical information in the patient's first language.
- Not being logical when labeling prescription bottles with directions, such as "take with food" when it should really read "take with water and food" for patients who take every direction literally and might surmise, as has happened with seniors, that this means the medication should be folded into food before trying to swallow.