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Physicians: Simple 'instrument' allows medical staff to check patients' literacy

Health-care providers soon will have access to a new tool designed to assess patients' health literacy skills quickly and simply, thanks to medical school researchers at the universities of Arizona and North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Knowing for sure if patients can understand health information enables doctors and nurses, for example, to boost how well patients fare.

Dr. Barry D. Weiss, professor of family and community medicine at AU, and Drs. Michael Pignone, associate professor, and Darren DeWalt, assistant professor, both in medicine at UNC, and colleagues developed what they call the "Newest Vital Sign." Their chief goals are to improve recognition of limited literacy and its effect on health and health care.

The Newest Vital Sign is a simple, six-question assessment based on an ice cream nutrition label, Pignone said. It enables health workers to gauge individuals' ability to read, comprehend plain English and act on health information in productive ways. It is the only rapid assessment tool developed both in Spanish and English.

"We believe this offers a way for providers to identify patients at risk for literacy-related communication problems," he said. "Here at UNC, we are also developing interventions to help patients with low literacy get the education, training and care they need for conditions like diabetes, asthma, and heart failure. Being able to identify those with communication problems early on and tailor messages to fit each patient's literacy level can reduce most such problems."

Poorer-than-optimal results spring from trouble patients have in navigating the complexities of health care, Pignone said, from interpreting instructions for drugs and self-care regimens to understanding insurance and informed-consent documents. Among the consequences are failure to receive appropriate preventive care, increased hospitalization risks and possibly higher health-care costs.

Reports issued by the Institute of
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Contact: David Williamson
rdtokids@email.unc.edu
919-962-8596
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
13-Dec-2005


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