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by Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D., AHRQ, AARP Bulletin, September 8, 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 health.
Nearly all of us, about nine of every 10 American adults, have some problems with health literacy.
Health literacy 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.
For example, health literacy plays a role in how well:
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.
Limited health 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.
Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and hospitals can all play a role in helping patients better understand and use health information.
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 staff 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.
While these efforts can help, you can take steps, too. To improve your health literacy:
With Health 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.
Carolyn M. Clancy, a general internist and researcher, is an expert in engaging consumers in their health care. She is the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
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