Taking steps to address health illiteracy

April 15, 2005

Low health literacy among patients is a very real problem that needs to be addressed, according to Debra Udey, vice president of Risk Management at OMS National Insurance Company, which provides medical liability insurance.

Low health literacy among patients is a very real problem that needs to be addressed, according to Debra Udey, vice president of Risk Management at OMS National Insurance Company, which provides medical liability insurance. In an editorial in Medical Liability Monitor (12/04), Udey outlined the problem of low health literacy, or the inability of a patient to read, understand, and act on health information. She noted that the problem can negatively impact health outcomes and increase costs-with, for example, patients being noncompliant with their prescribed treatment regimens or failing to get preventive or life-saving care.

Udey recommends that physicians receive training to address the literacy problems and advises them to provide patients with health material written at a fifth-grade reading level, to always give patients the option on phone trees to speak to a real person, to substitute plain language for clinical terms, and to introduce one or two health concepts at a time, saving other concepts for a future visit.