FRIDAY, July 22 (HealthDay News) -- If you have low "health
literacy," defined as having difficulty understanding medical
information, your health may be at risk.
In a review of 96 published studies, researchers concluded that
low health literacy is linked with many types of poorer health
outcomes and poorer use of health services.
"There are no real surprises here," said study author Nancy Berkman, senior health policy research analyst at RTI International, a North Carolina-based organization that conducts health research.
The report is published July 19 in the
Annals of Internal Medicine, and was funded by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
About 80 million Americans have limited health literacy, the
researchers report, and that puts their health at risk.
"If you don't understand what is going on, what is being written, this can have a negative impact on your use of health-care services and your health outcomes," Berkman said. "It's imperative you do what you can to understand the communication from the health-care system."
The review found that low health literacy was consistently
linked with a number of poor outcomes. These include more
hospitalization, a greater use of the emergency room services, less
frequent mammogram screenings, less frequent flu vaccinations and a
poor ability to take medicines correctly or understand labels and
Among older people, low health literacy was linked with overall
worse health status and higher mortality rates.
They did not find a firm link between poor health literacy and
some other health conditions and outcomes. These include access to
care, some health behaviors, taking medicine on schedule, severity
of asthma, diabetes or high blood pressure control, among
The studies also didn't provide firm evidence about one type of
health literacy -- a skill called numeracy, which helps people do
such things as measure blood glucose and adhere to medicine
regimens and outcomes.
While a person's cognitive skills would play a role in how
literate they are, the study did not examine this, Berkman
The findings came as no surprise to Rima Rudd, a senor lecturer
at the Harvard School of Public Health who is the principal
investigator for Health Literacy Studies.
While the review is sound, she says, "this offers only half the
picture." The problem is not just people's low health literacy, but
the inability of some health-care providers to communicate
information in a way their patients can understand, Rudd said.
Rudd said patients can demand that health-care provider speak
"in every day words." If you don't understand what a health-care
provider is telling you, in print or in words, she suggests asking
something like this: "I am sorry, but I haven't had your training.
Can you use everyday words?"
Ask questions if you don't understand, Berkman added, and don't
be shy about asking again and again if necessary. Taking someone
with you to the doctor's office can also help, she said.
In an editorial accompanying the study, Cynthia Baur, of the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the findings
reinforce the idea that health communication materials have to be
pre-tested with target audiences, among other practices, to be sure
they are effective.
To learn more about health literacy, visit the
National Network of Libraries of Medicine.