Health Literacy: Universal Precautions Needed

Article excerpt

Inadequate health literacy adversely affects health care outcomes and the quality of life of 90 million Americans and costs the health care system $73 billion annually. Current strategies addressing inadequate health literacy primarily target physicians, nurses, and pharmacists but omit the allied health practitioners responsible for providing most patient services. The 2003 Coalition for Allied Health Leadership Health Literacy Project team undertook a survey of allied health professionals and educators to assess their awareness and needs concerning inadequate health literacy. Less than one third of all respondents were aware of the issues surrounding health literacy or that health literacy resources are available or had institutional policy or goals to address health literacy. Brochures and videos were identified most frequently as new resources needed to establish or increase the effectiveness of health literacy awareness programs. The results of this project indicated that there is substantial opportunity to increase awareness of the impact of health literacy, to develop and assess institutional policies toward health literacy, and to create new resources to promote health literacy within the allied health professions. Any approach to improving health literacy must be universal by involving all health care professionals and all patients in the intervention. J Allied Health. 2004; 33:150-155.

COALITION FOR ALLIED HEALTH LEADERSHIP (CAHL) team projects allow participants to experience growth in leadership skills through the dynamics of group process. Project topics are consistent with the recommendations of the National Commission on Allied Health for improving quality in health professions education and practice. The objective is to develop a product that provides useful information and assistance to the allied health community.

The topic selected for this project was health literacy. Health literacy is a multidimensional issue encompassing the ability to read, understand, and use health information to make appropriate health care decisions and follow instructions for treatment that allow patients to manage their health and improve the quality of their lives. The implications of inadequate health literacy include poorer health status and poorer health outcomes, increased liability risks for providers due to medical errors, and an estimated $73 billion annual increase in costs for the health care system.1 People of all ages, races, income, and education levels are affected by inadequate health literacy. The diversity of persons affected by this problem mandates a universal approach to decrease its devastating effects and ultimately improve health in the United States. Using a universal approach to improve health literacy with all patients requires health care professionals to communicate effectively with patients from all socioeconomic, ethnic, age, and educational backgrounds without medical jargon, in short sentences using simple words. Printed patient instructions and educational materials should be culturally sensitive, relevant to patient needs, use uncomplicated words to convey the message, and include topic-appropriate graphics.

Health literacy initiatives include involvement of national organizations and corporations, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and Pfizer, Inc. The Partnership for Clear Health Communications, convened by Pfizer, Inc., is a coalition of national medical, nursing, pharmacy, and public health groups working collaboratively to promote awareness of the effects of inadequate health literacy and strategies to have a radical impact on its negative health consequences.2 The AskMe3.com website is a patient education program developed by the Partnership as a solution-based initiative to address inadequate health literacy. The AMA Foundation is working to raise awareness of health literacy issues within the primary care provider community, focusing initially on physicians, nurses, and pharmacists. …