Study: Half of U.S. Adults Cannot Understand Health Information

Accessibility in America

If you spend a lot of time explaining proper mobility equipment usage and care to your customers—only to have them seemingly disregard it—you're not alone.

A report shows that 90 million adults in the United States—nearly half the nation's total—have a difficult time understanding and applying information they receive about their health. And today's more complex medical and technical jargon isn't helping.

The study from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in Washington, D.C., reports a serious lack of health literacy in the country, which prevents patients from making good medical decisions. While health literacy includes reading ability, it also takes into account a patient's skills in writing, listening, speaking, arithmetic and conceptual knowledge. In everyday terms, people lacking health literacy can have problems understanding a health care professional's directions or following an instruction manual. The report also indicates that such patients may not fully understand consent forms or the claims in health care ads or commercials.

"Health literacy is fundamental to quality care," said David A. King, professor emeritus of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Institute of Medicine reports that more than 300 studies have shown that health care materials cannot be understood by most people using them. Language and cultural barriers also cause problems.

According to the report, the final result of health illiteracy is higher health care costs because such patients have a hard time effectively managing their medical conditions and often end up requiring costly emergency care or hospitalization. In the case of a rehab or DME mobility business, that extra cost might be additional service calls or repairs to equipment not properly used or maintained.

Based on its report, the Institute of Medicine has recommended strengthening health care classes in schools, but adds that the health care system itself must also pitch in. In your business, that might mean taking extra care in explaining how equipment works, working with clinicians to explain to clients what medical value the equipment has and asking bilingual employees to help bridge language gaps.

This article originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Mobility Management.

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