When it comes to understanding medical information, even the most sophisticated patient may not be “smarter than a fifth grader.”
In one of the largest studies of the links between health literacy and poor health outcomes, involving 14,000 patients with type 2 diabetes, researchers at the University of California San Francisco and Kaiser Permanente found that more than half the patients reported problems learning about their condition and 40 percent needed help reading medical materials. The patients with limited health literacy were 30 to 40 percent more likely to experience hypoglycemia — dangerously low blood sugar that can be caused if medications are not taken as instructed — than those with an adequate understanding of medical information.
Now, federal and state officials are pushing public health professionals, doctors, and insurers to simplify the language they use to communicate with the public in patient handouts, medical forms, and health websites. More than two-thirds of the state Medicaid agencies call for health material to be written at a reading level between the fourth and sixth grades.
A new federal program called the Health Literacy Action Plan is promoting simplified language nationwide. And some health insurers, doctors’ practices, and hospitals have begun using specialized software that scans documents looking for hard-to-understand words and phrases and suggests plain-English replacements. Read more »