Lack of reading skills undermines health quality

By the CDHP team

Health literacy is often recognized as a key factor in shaping the public's health. This connection is underscored by an article posted by the USC-Annenberg's "Reporting on Health" website. Ryan White writes

Not graduating from high school, as one might expect, has a big impact on everything from chronic disease rates to overall well-being. The correlation between higher levels of educational attainment and better health (and health care cost savings) is now supported by ample research.

... It’s not hard to understand some of the reasons why. Less education lowers the chances that you have medical insurance, which translates into less medical care and worse health outcomes. Those with more education also tend to make more money, which affords healthier, safer neighborhoods, and are able to make better choices when it comes to diet and exercise. Money alone won’t make you healthy, but it makes it much more likely you will be.

But for those unable to read basic documents, many of the health risks are much more immediate than that. Prescription bottles and care instructions become ciphers, health insurance paperwork a meaningless maze.

White shares the observations made by Dr. Erin Marcus, a physician who wrote about her interactions with a 64-year-old patient who "appeared to be intelligent and interested in getting well." In a New England Journal of Medicine article, Dr. Marcus wrote:

We quietly asked him to read his list of medications aloud. Haltingly, he told us he couldn't do it. Born in the rural South, he had left school in the second grade. He lived alone. He had been able to support himself as a gas-station attendant and handyman, but he had never learned to read.

We were stunned. We had tried to avoid jargon and to use simple language in explaining our instructions, and he had seemed to understand everything we had told him. He had seen scores of doctors, nurses, and social workers over the years without anyone's guessing he had a reading problem.

Why does this matter? Because, as the journal article noted, a survey conducted several years ago by the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 14% of U.S. adults have a “below basic” level of literacy, meaning they have “no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills.”


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