Health Literacy

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COLUMBIA - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said around half of adults in the U.S. struggle with understanding health care. 

A MU School of Medicine study found health literacy could improve the understanding and value of care for everyone. 

“If patients don’t understand why it is that we are recommending what we are recommending then things won’t go well,” MU Center for Health Policy Director Karen Edison said. “They won’t get better and that just leads to more cost and more suffering.” 

Edison said to prevent this, doctors should use words that are easily understand by patients. 

“I am a doctor, and when I go to my own doctor I like for my doctor to use plain language with me,” Edison said. “I think we can all use more plain language. I am a dermatologist and most of our diseases are Latin and it is just not helpful for patients.” 

Edison said one solution to fixing bad health literacy is to “teach back," which Edison describes as having the patient say what they need to do to help themselves after a doctor has told them. Another way to help is to describe a medical condition in the form of a real world analogy. 

Stan Hudson, MU Center for Health Policy Associate Director said health literacy is broken into two parts: the first focuses on the patients' ability to find and understand health information, while the second is on the doctors' ability to communicate that health information to patients. 

Hudson said the emphasis should be on doctors to provide clearer information to patients. 

“We can’t expect our patients to come in with these health literacy skills. There was a big study, that we cited in our research, that found nine out of every 10 Americans struggle with health literacy challenges,” Hudson said.  “If ninety percent of folks are coming into our office, we can’t expect them to have those skills. We got to do a better job of really supporting them.” 

Hudson said the study shows greater individual health literacy can improve the “Quadruple Aim” or the four goals of health care: reducing health costs, improving community health, enhancing the quality of care and improving patient and provider experiences. 

"I have been focusing on health literacy and I find it almost more fun to practice it because I love it when my patients do understand what we are talking about,” Edison said. “We all are in health care because we want to help people get better and be healthier and live healthier lives and so focusing on health literacy really helps us do what we do best.” 

Both Edison and Hudson hope to conduct a more in-depth study which focuses on the long-term effects of practicing good health literacy.