“It is not unusual for people to walk out of the doctor’s office confused by what they have heard,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “After all, this is where positive results often signal trouble, and negative can indicate a clean bill of health. And, this is only the beginning of opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication.”

LHSFNA Mangement Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nine out of ten adults have difficulty understanding and following routine health advice. This can lead to poor decisions regarding nutrition, medication and screenings. For example: “Watch your diet” does not mean, “Go on a diet. “Take your medication with breakfast” does not mean, “Mix it into your food.” “You do not have a genetic predisposition for breast cancer” does not mean, “You never have to have a mammogram.”

Overly technical jargon adds to the communication gap, sometimes with deadly consequences. Cardiac patients who are not health literate – according to research, that,s one out of every five – are twice as likely to die because of their condition. Replacing hyperlipidemiahypertension and myocardial infarction with everyday terminology like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart attack increases the likelihood that people with these conditions will understand what they are told.

Whether it is due to the amount of time health care providers spend with patients –15 minutes is the average – or reluctance of patients to ask for clarification, the bottom line is that low health care literacy affects all of society. Individuals in the U.S. with low health literacy skills incur up to $238 billion in additional health care expenses. They have difficulty locating providers, sharing personal health information, filling out health forms, managing chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma and engaging in self-care. This leads to increased use of emergency services and hospital stays that drive up costs for everyone.

Efforts are underway to improve dissemination of health care information. The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy promotes simplifying medical language, and some health insurers, medical practices and hospitals have started using software that scans documents for hard-to-understand words and phrases, suggesting plain-English replacements. These measures can help everyone get more out of their health care visits and, across the board, help keep health care costs down.

Improve Your Health Care Literacy

  • If you do not understand what your health care provider said, ask that it be repeated in simpler language.
  • Update your health care provider about anything that has happened to you since your last visit like changes in weight, sleep habits or energy levels, for example.
  • Repeat medication instructions back to your health care provider to confirm your understanding. After you start taking the medication, promptly report any side effects and do not change how you take it or stop taking it without first consulting with your health care provider.
  • Insist that conversations about medical matters take place when you are dressed and sitting in the doctor’s office, not while you are lying on the examination table. Take notes or take along an advocate who can take notes for you.
  • If you want to explore a diagnosis further on the Internet, be sure to look up reputable sites like www.nlm.nih.gov, produced by the National Library of Medicine, and www.healthfinder.gov, produced by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Many major medical centers also provide useful, accurate information online.
  • Avoid anecdotal information posted by patients or patients’ relatives as well as write-ups by commercial organizations where selling a product is the purpose.If you have a test, do not assume that no news is good news. Ask how and when you will get results.

“One of the most important steps in maintaining your health,” says Borck, “is understanding what is being said to you about your health. Speak up if you don’t get it.”

[Janet Lubman Rathner]