Health Literacy Score?
By Carolyn M.
May 20, 2008
With final exam
season upon us, I’m offering a pop quiz on a
topic many of us health professionals included
need to learn more about. (Don’t worry: grades
won’t be posted!)
What do the
following scenarios have in common?
middle-aged lawyer with diabetes trying to
figure out her medication schedule during a
- A man who
speaks mostly Spanish wondering if he can
have coffee before a lab test that requires
- A busy
single mom searching at the local drug store
for the right medicine to reduce her
5-year-old child’s fever.
If you answered
that all of these examples relate to taking care
of ourselves and our families, you’re partially
correct. The full answer is that these scenarios
all describe situations in which health literacy
is the key to getting or staying healthy.
reflects how well a person can find and
understand information about the health care
services they need. It plays a big role in how
well a person can take information and use it to
make good decisions about their care, such as
following directions for treatment.
Given all of the
health information we get each day, you might
think we’d score fairly high on the literacy
scale. But the facts tell a different story.
Nearly 90 million
Americans have only basic or below-basic health
literacy skills. Limited literacy affects people
from all income, age, ethnic, and education
groups. Studies show it plays a major role in
whether you have a good result from the
treatment you get for a disease or an illness.
means understanding your disease or condition
and how to live with it day to day. For example,
the lawyer with diabetes needs to know that she
must eat on a regular schedule to control her
blood glucose levels. If she skips lunch and
then gets on an airplane without food, she could
end up feeling dizzy, or even worse, having a
also means knowing how to follow directions for
treatment. The Hispanic man about to have a
blood test would not have had to wonder if he
could drink coffee if he had been told clearly
and in Spanish that he could drink only water
for 12 hours before the test. This confusion is
not uncommon, but it is unfortunate.
labels carefully can be a dangerous result of
low health literacy. The busy single mom might
pick up a bottle of aspirin to bring down her
child’s fever, but I hope she quickly puts it
back on the shelf. That’s because aspirin a
safe and inexpensive medicine for adults is
generally not safe for children.
Since 1986, the
Food and Drug Administration has required that
all aspirin products include a warning label
about the risks of giving it to children. Since
then, fewer children have died because they were
given aspirin. But the bigger lesson still
holds: Make sure you read medicine labels before
you take or give them.
reading labels on medicine bottles or
instructions before a medical test doesn’t mean
that you, I, or millions of other Americans will
know exactly what to do. That’s because medicine
is far more complex today than it was even a
decade ago. Drugs are more plentiful and
powerful, and there are new, more involved
medical tests that can detect illness and
and hospitals need to help patients better
understand and use health information. My
Agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and
Quality, has developed tools to help pharmacists
talk to patients about how to use drugs safely.
The American Medical Association recently put
together a kit to help doctors realize why
health literacy is so important.
As a patient, the
very best way to boost your health literacy is
by asking questions. I know this is not always
easy to do. But having the right information
and putting it to good use can make the
difference in the results you get from your
health care. To help you, my Agency has also
developed suggested questions that you can take
with you when you visit your doctor, your
pharmacist, or the hospital.
patients and health professionals can work to
improve our health literacy. Better health is
I’m Dr. Carolyn
Clancy, and that’s my opinion on how to navigate
the health care system.
are the Answer
Build Your Question List
Pharmacy Meeting Patients’ Needs?
A Pharmacy Health Literacy Assessment Tool
Consumer Education: Over-the-Counter Medicine
Tips for Parents
Current as of May 2008
What’s Your Health Literacy Score?
Navigating the Health Care System: Advice
Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy, May 20, 2008.
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality,
Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/cc/cc052008.htm