HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Reading is Fundamental

My Health Law class just finished our segment on informed consent and now I find this article.  Ezra Klein posts on American reading and the need to make medical information more accessible so that people can make necessary choices about their health care.  He cites to a recent Washington Post article discussing the low health literacy in the United States and quotes it saying: 

A 1999 report by the American Medical Association found that consent forms and other medical forms are typically written at the graduate school level, although the average American adult reads at the eighth-grade level.

Yikes!  Eighth grade!!  The Washington Post article continues:

Earlier this month a Chicago-based organization known as the Joint Commission, which accredits the nation's hospitals and clinics, unveiled a list of 35 recommendations to address the problem, which is estimated to cost taxpayers $58 billion annually. Among the recommendations developed by a panel of experts: adoption of communication techniques proven to be effective with patients, simplification of jargon-laden consent forms, and development of patient-friendly navigation signs, which may include the use of pictures or icons that are also recognizable to non-English speakers.

Low health literacy "is a silent epidemic that threatens the quality of health care," said Dennis O'Leary, commission president. Too many physicians and administrators, he said, fail to grasp the dimensions of a problem that affects every aspect of medical care and is a major impediment to patient safety. In some cases, cultural and language differences are a barrier, but experts emphasize that the majority of those with low health literacy are native-born and white.

Interest in health literacy comes at a time when Americans are expected to assume ever-greater responsibility for their care and are discharged from hospitals sicker and quicker, experts agree. Many patients are expected to comply with sophisticated drug regimens, to adjust or calculate medication doses or to manage complicated equipment with little training and less supervision. A comprehensive national assessment of adult literacy conducted in 2003 by the U.S. Department of Education found that 43 percent of adults have basic or below-basic reading skills -- they read at roughly a fifth-grade level or lower -- and 5 percent are not literate in English, in some cases because it is not their first language.

The Washington Post article is an interesting (and sad) read. 

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