Studies show low health literacy is linked to poor health outcomes and is especially a concern for older adults.
What is Health Literacy?
You can find many definitions of health literacy, but this one from the National Library of Medicine is widely accepted:
Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.
Health literacy depends not only on the skills of the patient. Health literacy also depends on the ability of health care professionals to communicate effectively, in a manner which can be understood by the patient.
What are the consequences of low health literacy?
Low health literacy is clearly linked to poor health outcomes. According to a fact sheet from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, people who have limited health literacy skills:
- are less likely to use preventive care
- are less able to manage chronic conditions
- are more likely to visit the emergency department
- are more likely to be hospitalized
- are more likely to report their health as poor
Who is at risk for low health literacy?
In the United States, a 2006 report from the Department of Education, based on the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, estimates that only about 12% of the adult population are proficient in health literacy. The healthcare environment is becoming more complex at the same time the health care consumer is expected to assume more responsibility for his or her own care. Probably everybody will encounter some health literacy issues at some point. Still, we know that some segments of the population – including older adults – are more likely to experience poor health literacy.
Why are older adults at more risk than other people?
Older adults scored the lowest of any age group on the health literacy portion of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Only 3% of older adults scored high enough to be considered proficient, while nearly 30% scored at the lowest level: "below basic."
Older adults are also far more likely to have multiple, chronic health conditions. The combination of their more complex healthcare needs and their lower health literacy skills is a dangerous combination.
Further Reading – Major Health Literacy Resources
- Clinical-Community Linkages. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.
- Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion. 2004. Institute of Medicine, National Academies Press, Washington, DC.
- Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit. June 2014. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.
- National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. 2010. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Washington, DC.
- Patient Education Materials Assessment Tool (PEMAT) and Users' Guide. 2013. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.
- Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills. 2nd ed. 1996. Doak, Doak, & Root. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, PA.
What Does the research say?
Berkman ND, Sheridan SL, Donohue KE, et al. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Health literacy interventions and outcomes: an updated systematic review. 2011 March Evidence Reports/Technology Assessments no.199.
Sudore RL, Schillenger D. Interventions to improve care for patients with limited health literacy. Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management. 2009 Jan 116(1):20-29.