Low health literacy linked to poor patient outcomes

People who have difficulty understanding health information have poorer overall health and a higher risk of death, according to a study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. People with low health literacy are also more likely to use hospital emergency rooms and inpatient care and less likely to get flu shots or mammograms.

According to the AHRQ examination of major published studies on health literacy and its effects, low health literacy results in patients taking medications incorrectly and misinterpreting labels as well.

The findings are significant, as more than 75 million adults in the United States have limited health literacy, and such inability to comprehend and use health information costs the U.S. economy as much as $238 billion each year.

As the U.S. healthcare system tries to control Medicare and Medicaid costs, AHRQ researchers suggest educating people so they can take a more active role in their healthcare. Implementing measures to enable patients to easily comprehend health materials and better understand their doctors can improve medication adherence, self-management and disease management, note the researchers.

"Ensuring that people understand healthcare information is critical to a high-quality, safe healthcare system," said AHRQ's director  Dr. Carolyn Clancy. "Improving health literacy will be a major step in the nation's efforts to enhance healthcare quality and safety."

For more:
- read the AHRQ press release
- check out the study (.pdf)
- read the National Journal article 

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