Term Paper: Low Health Literacy

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Low Health Literacy: How it Impacts the Pharmacy Patients

Many years ago, the medical field was founded in a few basic rules. One took medications three or four times a day for 10 days and if they did not feel better they returned to the doctor. There were few choices in the medications that were available and for each illness or physical complaint the same drugs were used. Today, however, that has changed and there are literally thousands of medications available to use for many different purposes. With each passing decade it becomes more important than ever to be health literate when it comes to medications being prescribed. There are now many medications that interact with each other in negative manners. In addition, whereas certain conditions used to mean a death sentence, today if medication is properly followed those same conditions can be controlled and managed, providing the patient with a high quality of life. Diabetes, hypertension and seizure disorders are only a few of the many situations where today's medications can ease their impact as long as the patient follows the medication regime carefully.

As these medications and their abilities to control diseases that used to mean death become available it is becoming apparent that many patients are not following the medication routine the way they should. Health literacy is beginning to show glaring deficits in the American population as weaknesses in understanding what their medications mean to them and how they should be taken begin to become evident.

All of the new and advanced medications in the world are not going to make a difference if society does not step up its health literacy with regards to pharmaceutical products.

Low Health Literacy and its Impact

If there is one thing that America can agree on, it is the fact that low health literacy about prescription medications contributes to poor outcomes in health. A recent survey was conducted that asked thousands of patients, doctors and pharmacists how much of an impact low health literacy has on the health of those who are prescribed the medications 75% of the respondents believe it has a significantly negative impact on America's health overall (Failure, 2002).

In addition the survey found that more than 33% of patients and 75% of doctors know someone whose health problems are directly related to not understanding how they should take their prescribed medications correctly (Failure, 2002).

Experts estimate there are more than 90 million people in America who qualify as low health literacy candidates.

It is a pervasive and growing issue that currently costs tens of billions of dollars to take care of in the way of health issues and costs for things that proper prescription literacy could have prevented.

Survey results also showed:

Two-thirds of physicians and pharmacists regularly or occasionally encounter patients who don't understand their prescription medication instructions.

Nine out of 10 physicians and pharmacists say most patients have had an experience in which they thought they understood instructions regarding prescription medication -- but later had trouble remembering or knowing what they should do (Failure, 2002)."

Prior research has shown that the incidence of health illiteracy has nothing to do with socioeconomic standing, race or religion. It is in fact something that cuts across all borders and groups and does not care the age, race, education or income level of the people involved. Health literacy issues create difficulty for patients in understanding how they should take their medication and those mistakes can be costly in more ways than one.

Research shows these patients make more mistakes with their medicines and are less able to comply with treatment. Patients who have difficulty reading are at a 52% higher risk for hospitalization (Failure, 2002).

Many patients feel intimidated or vulnerable in a medical setting often inhibiting their ability to admit they may not understand the information provided by their health care professionals. This may lead to patients' lack of compliance with physician instructions or not seeking medical care altogether and, ultimately, negative health outcomes (Failure, 2002)."

One research team set out to find out what, if any common denominator low health literacy people had. The study found it had nothing to do with income, race, religion or education level, however it did have a tie to literacy levels, which in some instances do have an impact on the level of education attained (Skills, 2003).

An increasing body of evidence indicates that low health literacy may be an underlying factor in high use of some health care services as well as influencing health outcomes. This pervasive but, until now, relatively hidden issue is estimated to cost the U.S. health care system up to $73 billion annually and puts 90 million people -- nearly 1-in-3 -- at risk for poor health outcomes (Skills, 2003).

The difficulty may be due to poor reading comprehension skills, the complexity of medical information, or the format in which it is delivered. Certain groups are more vulnerable due to age, language skills, cultural factors or reading skills; however, anyone can have difficulty understanding health care information. Studies have shown that even people who are college educated and can understand complicated words prefer to have medical information stated simply (Skills, 2003). "

One expert, Dr. David Baker, who serves as a member of the Partnership and chief of General Internal Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine believes that part of the blame rests with the medical community itself. According to Baker the medical terms being used are confusing and difficult for patients to understand (Skills, 2003).

It is almost as if the medical community, including doctors and pharmacists are speaking another language for some patients (Skills, 2003).

His desire is to have medical language and terminology simplified so that patients can understand what is expected of them. Baker states: "Health information needs to be communicated to patients in plain language and in a way that is appropriate to patients' individual background and culture. The Partnership for Clear Health Communication was formed to leverage the collective resources and expertise of its members to improve communication between patients and health care providers (Skills, 2003)."

Solving the Problem

There are several things that experts believe can be done to raise the health literacy level of American patients.

One of the first suggestions that has been made is to improve the education of patients and providers about the importance of health literacy and understanding. Years ago doctors and pharmacists enjoyed a certain admiration by society that placed them above their patients. In more recent years however the realization that it is having a negative impact on society's health has moved the nation in the direction of a more team effort approach. Education of patients about the importance of asking questions to be sure to fully understand their medication needs and what they entail should be a first step in changing the low health literacy in this country.

In addition to educating the patients the pharmacists and doctors need to be educated in learning how to put things in layman's terms for there patients and clients.

Another strong suggestion by research analysts is to begin a nationwide research project that will define health literacy and evaluate suggested solutions for their effectiveness and future.

One of the things that can be evaluated is the application of practically implemented solutions. One example of the effort to improve health literacy at the pharmacy is the pharmacy counseling option in which patients going in to pick up their medications are asked each time if they have any questions they would like to ask their pharmacist.

Another important element to raising the standard of health literacy in this nation is the effort to communicate to those who are not English speaking as a first language.

Effective communication tools are particularly critical when people of different cultures, ethnic and racial backgrounds need to exchange information in a way that all parties can understand and respond," said Dr. Sharon Allison-Ottey, a physician and Chair of the Health Literacy Task Force of the National Medical Association, a member of the Partnership (Skills, 2003). "The first step in this solution is to help patients and providers communicate in a clear manner. One tool that can help this process is Ask Me 3. Ask Me 3 is a tool developed by the Partnership to help improve health communication between patients and providers (Skills, 2003). Through patient and provider education materials developed by leading health literacy experts. Ask Me 3 promotes three simple but essential questions patients can ask their providers in every health care interaction (Skills, 2003):

1. "What is my main problem?

2. What do I need to do?

3. Why is it important for me to do this (Skills, 2003)?"

Some research teams have announced that the best indictor of United States overall health in the United States is tied to the patient's ability to understand what their doctor is saying to them and to understand the ins and outs of their medication regime. Some examples… [END OF PREVIEW]

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