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Health Literacy Identified as Barrier to Good Health; 'Engage for Health' Program Can Help

June 11, 2018

A statement issued by the American Heart Association and published in the journal Circulation highlights limited health literacy as a significant, invisible barrier to good health for many Americans.

Health literacy includes not only the ability to read, but also to understand simple medical terminology, to ask questions of a provider for clarification, to follow treatment instructions, and understand treatment-related documentation, and to identify concerns after treatment that require follow-up care. Low health literacy is associated with increased health care usage and costs, poor adherence to medication instructions, and a higher risk of rehospitalization.

The newly published statement is based on a review of studies published between 2004 and 2016. While the data studied focuses on heart and stroke care, the results are representative of patients in general.

Key points from the statement include:

  • Only 12 percent of Americans have the necessary skills to understand basic health care information
  • More than half of Americans didn’t recognize a blood pressure reading of 160/100 mmHg as being abnormal
  • Americans with low health literacy were more likely smoke and relapse following smoking cessation programs
  • People with diabetes with low health literacy were more likely to develop complications
  • Patients with low health literacy were 1.7 times less likely to use the electronic patient portal for communication and disease management
  • Low health literacy among parents is associated with a 25 percent increased risk of obesity for elementary school-aged children

Improving patient communication also improves patient satisfaction with their providers, and results in overall better health for patients. Recommendations for providers include:

  • Use common words when explaining medical conditions to patients; avoid medical jargon
  • Ensure that documentation provided to patients is easily understood
  • Ensure that treatment instructions are being followed correctly by following up with the patient after an appointment or hospital discharge
  • Provide resources to patients such as specialist information, community groups, or other after-care support

Also taking patients’ culture, customs, and beliefs into consideration when communicating with them can be a very important factor in ensuring that they understand the details provided.

HAP’s "Engage for Health" community health program aimed at improving health literacy, has received national support and may help improve health literacy.

During 2016, HAP partnered with the Pennsylvania Library Association, National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) Middle Atlantic Region (MAR), NNLM Evaluation Office, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to update the program and pilot it in 16 libraries across Pennsylvania.

Engage for Health is now available for libraries, community and faith based agencies, and health care providers to offer in their communities. Complete Engage for Health program information and resources is available on the NNLM MAR website or by contacting Jennifer Collins, HAP’s director, public affairs.

For more information about HAP’s population health initiatives, contact Robert Shipp, HAP’s vice president, population health strategies.

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