Health Illiteracy

Health related issues in this country have been under the microscope for many years. The consumer world is flooded with ways to better your health and health care is a consistent debate in the political arena. Despite the large amount of attention that is placed on the subject, ironically Americans as a whole are for the most part health illiterate.

Only 12 percent of Americans are health literate enough to handle their own care, according to information from the 2007 National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report published in a Reuter’s article by Terri Coles.

Not only does the illiteracy harm the patient and the quality of care that they receive, but the economy takes a hit as well. It is estimated that poor health literacy costs between $106 and $236 billion dollars annually, according to a report put out by the University of Connecticut last year.

Many people do not have primary care physicians and if they become sick, they go to the emergency room. This can increase hospital costs and become a detriment to the economy as well, said Julia Morrison, a 7th-semester nursing student at Simmons College in Boston, Mass.

Many go to the emergency room when ever they are experiencing health problems because they simply don’t know where else they can go, according to Megan Enzmann, a 7th-semester allied health science major. As a result, this obviously causes an increase in health care.

In 2003, Americans made 113.9 million visits to hospital emergency rooms, a 26 percent increase from 1993. At the same time, hospital emergency departments have decreased about 12.3 percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics in May of 2002. (

This problem is not new however. In 2003, 22 percent of people were classified as having basic health literacy whereas an astonishing 14 percent were ranked below basic. The Reuter’s article stated that nearly one third of people did not have the ability to determine their medical dosage stated on their prescription bottle, according to Cindy Brach from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

This startling statistic comes as a result of a few factors, including demographics, age and education. Minorities such as African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are more likely fall under the categories of below basic and basic health literacy. Furthermore, they are more likely to either be uninsured or have no health insurance at all, according to the Reuter’s article.

In my experience working in hospitals in Boston and Hartford area, patients are hesitant to ask questions to doctors and nurses if they don’t comprehend the diagnosis or medications they are put on, said Morrison. Whether it is intimidation or the literacy aspect, it is important for Americans to be advocates for their own health.

For a majority of patients, increasing age comes with increasing prescriptions. According to Brach, the inability to process information such as that relating to their medication can have a large affect on their health. The large population of baby boomers will probably make the health literacy problem worse before getting better, according to UConn’s John Vernon, who was the leading author of the university’s study.

It has been proven time and time again that a lack of health literacy takes a toll on everyone, whether we know it or not. To address this problem, the Department of Health and Human Services has set the stakes high and has a goal to get rid of health disparities by the year 2010, according to Brach. One major issue that needs to be addressed and refined is health information communication. Often times the information that people receive is confusing and complex. Offering people information in a simplistic manner that everyone can understand would be a start to putting this country on the right path for better health literacy. With adequate education and communication, people would be more apt to understand their individual health coverage, how to properly administer their prescriptions and have a better general understanding of their health care as a whole.