AMA tackles health literacy

An estimated 90 million adults – nearly half the adults in America – have trouble understanding medical terms and directions, according to two studies published on April 8 by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). The AMA is joining these organizations in calling for a wider national effort to improve health literacy – a problem the AMA first began battling in 1998.

Both reports indicate people with low health literacy are less likely to get screening tests such as mammograms and pap smears, to get flu and pneumonia vaccines and to take their children for well child care visits. They also are more likely to be hospitalized, use emergency rooms and have poorer health outcomes, leading to billions of dollars in avoidable health costs.

"For the 90 million Americans with limited literacy skills, it's tough to read the front page of a newspaper or a bus schedule, much less the complicated documents that go along with being a patient in our country today," said AMA President-elect John C. Nelson, MD, MPH.

In 2003, the AMA, in conjunction with the AHRQ and the American Hospital Association, launched a campaign to educate clinicians and patients about the importance of effective communication. The AMA and the AMA Foundation also developed a health literacy kit for physicians and other health professionals called "Health Literacy: Help Your Patients Understand," which contains a 48-page manual, a video, patient information and buttons for clinicians and staff to wear that say: "Ask me – I can help."

"I'm pleased to report that our efforts are having very practical effects in physician practices," said Dr. Nelson. "More of us are slowing down when we speak to give patients time to understand what they're hearing. We're saying 'high blood pressure' instead of 'hypertension;' using plain English instead of confusing jargon. And more of us are asking patients to repeat the information we give them, in their own words."

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