Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma Organizations Link Literacy Levels, Health Care

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Oklahoma Organizations Link Literacy Levels, Health Care

Article excerpt

The effect of low literacy levels on a state's work force and economic development isn't hard to imagine.

But the leaders of several Oklahoma organizations are asking people to consider the effect of literacy levels on health care.

According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 14 percent of Oklahoma's Caucasian population reads below basic level - from no reading ability to a second- or third-grade level. The state's black community was ranked at 58 percent for the same level, and the Hispanic community 50 percent. Only 11 percent of Oklahomans are in the proficient category and read at an advanced level.

"It's astounding, and people don't want to hear it, but it's where we are," said Mary Surbeck, literacy program coordinator at the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. "If everyone in the United States experienced the same health gains as whites in the highest income group, 14 percent of the premature deaths among whites and 30 percent of the premature deaths among racial and ethnic groups would be prevented."

Surbeck will speak to The Oklahoma Health Equity Campaign partners Tuesday at the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Marisa New Wells, director of Health Equity and Resource Opportunities at the Department of Health, said her group takes a big-picture look at the issues that create health disparities, and literacy is among them.

Low literacy levels have a ripple effect across health care: If people don't understand how or when to take their medicine, or they go to the emergency room because they lack access to a medical home, those costs are passed along.

"We hear so much about health care delivery reform, and there are problems in health care that need to be addressed, but there also are a lot of things more on a societal level that we need to be looking at," Wells said.

When people have low literacy levels, they sometimes don't understand their doctor's instructions and don't know how to manage chronic disease, Surbeck said. Many don't have health insurance and are ill-equipped to be on a healthy regimen. Anecdotes around the state and nation point to the problem: people giving their children tablespoons of medication when it called for teaspoons, a woman undergoing a hysterectomy without understanding what she was having surgery for, and people not understanding that they shouldn't take medicine on an empty stomach. …

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