The Lack of Health Literacy in the U.S.

By: Ellen Albritton

This article discusses the alarmingly low rates of health literacy that affect a large number of people in the United States. The definition of health literacy given in the articles is “the ability to obtain, understand, and use health information. In fact, only 12% of the of the people in a study was deemed proficient, 50% fell at the intermediate level, and a huge 36% were classified as basic or below basic. It provides a number of examples of what can happen when a patient does not understand how to take a prescription, cannot read or comprehend a warning label, or cannot accurately follow directions given to them by their doctor. Some of the things that have resulted include developing an unnecessary infection, a perforated ear drum, and inaccurately completing medical forms.

While some of the things that patients do not understand may be the result of medical professionals using too much professional jargon that very few people would be able to understand, but there is a more basic reason for the lack of health literacy as well. In this week’s reading, Powers and Faden discussed how one social determinant can often affect more than one dimension of well-being. I see the case of health literacy as presented in this article one example of that. The social determinant of education certainly affects the reasoning dimension, as low-quality education can lead to an insufficiency in reasoning. Low quality of education can also affect the dimension of health, as low general literacy levels play a huge part in someone being health literate. Low health literacy disproportionately affects those living in poverty, as well as recent immigrants, two groups that are also disproportionately represented in under performing schools.

One final thing to think about from the article–The other day in class we talked about how people can internalize racism. Similarly, a patient educator that contributed to the article noted how many patients who lack basic health literacy will “tune out or shut down” because they know how it will make them look if they ask certain questions or say that they don’t understand.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Lack of Health Literacy in the U.S.

  1. mpowers

    I think health literacy is an extremely important topic. Without it, health outcomes are reduced dramatically. And like you mentioned, it is a part of the circle of racism. It seems to be that if a certain population is more likely to have low health literacy, their health outcomes will be lowered. A less healthy population can result in lost jobs, low respect, etc which can all fuel internalized racism. We need to focus on ways to improve health literacy. Doctors could use charts or pictures to explain procedures. They could also ask the patient to repeat the doctor’s order in his/her own words to ensure that they were understood. Using translators for people who do not speak English could also improve health literacy. If we improve health literacy, I think it would have an impact on the health outcomes and the overall feelings of the population who was helped (ie: they might feel empowered, have more self respect, etc).

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