Nearly half of all U.S. adults -- almost 90 million people -- have difficulty understanding and acting upon the health information they encounter in the healthcare setting, media and elsewhere, according to two new reports. A study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that those with lower literacy skills are less likely to use preventive care such as potentially life-saving screening tests for mammograms, to get flu and pneumonia vaccines or to take their children for annual physicals, and are more likely to have difficulty understanding informed consent forms, diagnoses and medication instructions. Those with lower-than-average reading skills are also more likely to be hospitalized by physicians who may be concerned about the patients' abilities to follow basic instructions for care at home, the AHRQ report said. Commissioned by the American Medical Association, the study urged healthcare providers to develop and support health literacy programs including easy-to-read guides and other comprehension aids that have shown evidence of improving both low- and high-literacy patients' knowledge. A report released in tandem by the Institute of Medicine also called for a concerted effort by providers to improve the nation's health literacy, and found a higher rate of hospitalization and use of emergency room services among patients with limited health literacy. The IOM said health professionals and policymakers have little understanding of the extent and effects of the problem, which may lead to billions of dollars in avoidable healthcare costs.
View the AHRQ report, "Literacy and Health Outcomes," here.