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Demanding Health Literacy

Demanding Health Literacy

Marijke Durning | NursingLink

Health Literacy

Health literacy – or illiteracy – is a big issue in the U.S. Statistics show that more than one-fifth of Americans can’t read above a grade 4 reading level and over 40 million people in the United States, aged 16 years or older, are functionally illiterate: they can’t understand what they are reading.

It may seem unfathomable to people in the health care field who read on a daily basis, but the many people who can’t read not only miss out on the social experience of reading, they are putting their health at risk. A few years ago, a publication, Adult Literacy in America: A First Look at the Results of the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), reported that three-quarters of Americans who had chronic illnesses also had difficulty reading. They were, literally, sicker than Americans who could read. They were also more likely to misinterpret medical instructions, such as prescriptions, leading to either medications not being taken when they should be or taken improperly.

Is There a Solution?

For there to be a solution, the problem must be recognized. For non-English readers, many health care facilities offer translations into various languages, depending on the population of their area. But that doesn’t help those native English-speakers who still can’t read. And of course, we need to be able to identify the non-readers before we can address the issue. This is not an easy task – they are masters at hiding their inability to read. After all, this isn’t something that they want to be advertised.

For those patients who we know can’t read, photos, drawings, and graphics can be helpful, but not all instructions are easily translated into visual images. With all of our progress and technology, people are still slipping through the school system unable to read. The educational system may have failed them; does the health care system have to as well?

Have you ever come across patients who you suspected cannot read? How did you manage the situation when it came to instructions after discharge?

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