By Carolyn M.
September 7, 2010
There is a truism
in health care: When you don’t fully understand
or can’t act on information about your health
care, you are more likely to be in poorer
Nearly all of us,
about 9 of every 10 American adults, have some
problems with health literary.
is not only about reading. It’s about
understanding difficult health terms and issues.
Even highly educated people can have trouble
understanding health care information.
health literacy plays a role in how well:
- Someone is
able to take the right medicine at the right
- A person
with diabetes properly manages the
- A parent
follows instructions for helping a child
recover from surgery.
Health care is
complicated and the health care system can be
confusing. That’s why so many people have
trouble understanding information about their
health and health care options. Older adults,
minorities, immigrants whose first language
isn’t English, poor adults, and people with
ongoing mental and physical conditions are more
likely to have a hard time. But everyone can
have trouble sometimes, especially when you’re
sick or have just been told you have a disease.
literacy can literally harm your health. If you
have trouble understanding instructions, you may
have a hard time managing a health condition or
taking your medicines correctly. You may end up
in the hospital more, spend more on health care,
and have poorer health. Limited health literacy
can also decrease your chances of getting
important tests, like mammograms, or helping a
loved one with his or her care.
pharmacists, and hospitals can all play a role
in helping patients better understand and use
To help, the
Federal Government in May announced a
national effort to make health information
more straightforward and understandable.
My agency, the
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, has
developed tools to help doctors and their office
staffs improve communication with all patients
so they can better understand a doctor’s
instructions and other important medical
information. Another tool helps pharmacists talk
to patients about how to use drugs safely.
efforts can help, you can take steps, too. To
improve your health literacy:
questions. Then, make sure you get
and understand the answers. If you don’t
understand, ask the doctor or nurse for more
information. Asking questions may not always
be easy, but it can get you the information
you need to take better care of yourself. To
help you, my agency developed a
list of questions you can bring to the
doctor, the pharmacist, or the hospital.
Repeat information back to your doctor or
nurse. After your doctor or nurse
gives you directions, repeat those
instructions in your own words. Simply say,
"Let me see if I understand this?" This
gives you a chance to clarify information.
Studies show that doctors and patients often
have very different ideas of what the
patient is going to do after leaving the
doctor’s office. For example, if a clinician
advises you to ’take two’ Coumadin, it is
really important to know if they mean 2
milligrams--or two pills. Repeating back can
help avoid potentially serious mistakes.
Bring all your medicines to your next
doctor’s visit. Ask your doctor to
go over all of your drugs and supplements,
including vitamins and herbal medicines.
More than one third of adults struggle to
understand how to take their medicines.
Reviewing your medicines can help you and
your doctor. You may even discover some
mistakes, such as two drugs that shouldn’t
be taken together.
another adult with you. This might
be especially true when you expect to
receive important information.
the doctor’s office know you need an
interpreter if you don’t speak or understand
English very well. You have a right
to an interpreter, at no cost to you. Even
if you speak some English, tell the doctor’s
office what language you prefer when you
make an appointment.
a Pill Card. My agency has
published step-by-step instructions to
create an easy-to-use
Pill Card to help patients, parents, and
others keep track of medicines.
Literacy Month coming up in October, this is a
good time to try these suggestions. You might
even improve your health--or the health of
someone you care about.
I’m Dr. Carolyn
Clancy, and that’s my advice on how to navigate
the health care system.
Health Literacy Limited for Many Americans (Transcript) Podcast
for Healthcare Research and Quality
Questions are the Answer: Build Your
Department of Health and Human Services
The National Action Plan to Improve Health
Institute for Literacy
America’s Literacy Directory
Current as of September 2010
Improving Your Health Literacy.
Navigating the Health Care System: Advice
Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy, September 7,
2010. Agency for Healthcare Research and
Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/cc/cc090710.htm