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90 million Americans are burdened with inadequate health literacy

WASHINGTON -- Nearly half of all American adults 90 million people have difficulty understanding and using health information, and there is a higher rate of hospitalization and use of emergency services among patients with limited health literacy, says a new report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Limited health literacy may lead to billions of dollars in avoidable health care costs.

More than a measurement of reading skills, health literacy also includes writing, listening, speaking, arithmetic, and conceptual knowledge. Health literacy is defined as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic information and services needed to make appropriate decisions regarding their health.

"Health literacy is fundamental to quality care," said committee chair David A. Kindig, professor emeritus of population health sciences, University of Wisconsin, Madison. "The public's ability to understand and make informed decisions about their health is a frequently ignored problem that can have a profound impact on individuals' health and the health care system. Most professionals and policy-makers have little understanding of the extent and effects of this problem."

A concerted effort by the public health and health care systems, the education system, the media, and health care consumers is needed to improve the nation's health literacy, the report says. If patients cannot comprehend needed health information, attempts to improve the quality of care and reduce health care costs and disparities may fail.

Limited health literacy affects more than just the uneducated and poor, the report says. At some point, most individuals will encounter health information they cannot understand. Even well educated people with strong reading and writing skills may have trouble comprehending a medical form or doctor's instructions regarding a drug or procedure.

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Contact: Maureen O'Leary or Heather McDonald
NEWS@nas.edu
202-334-2138
The National Academies
8-Apr-2004


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