Health illiteracy widespread

Almost half of all US adults (about 90 million people) have difficulty understanding and implementing health information, according to a report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Such health illiteracy contributes to higher rates of hospitalization and use of emergency services and to billions of dollars being spent unnecessarily.

The problem is more than just an inability to read and is not limited to the uneducated or poor. Health literacy—defined as the degree to which people can obtain, process, and understand basic information and services needed to make appropriate decisions regarding their health—requires writing, listening, speaking, arithmetic, and conceptual skills. According to the report, at some point, most individuals will encounter health information they cannot understand. Contributing factors are the ever-increasing complexity of the healthcare and insurance systems, of medical procedures, and of forms, and the economic pressure on health care workers to spend less time with patients.

Copies of Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion are available from the National Academies Press; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at


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