This week, I was once again reminded of the prevalence and impact of low health literacy. An article on WashingtonPost.com penned by CVS Caremark pointed to these statistics from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that looked at the elder segment of the population, age 65 and older:
- 2/3 of older people are unable to understand information provided about their Rx medications
- 71% have difficulty using printed material
- 80% have difficulty understanding charts
- 68% have difficulty interpreting numbers and performing calculations
Health Illiteracy, an Equal-Opportunity Menace
It would be easy to assume these are people who are disadvantaged without the benefit of a good education, but that’s not always the case. As the article points out, “Often, years of education and general reading ability have little to do with how someone comprehends medical information. Sometimes even highly educated, literate people have difficulty understanding graphs and visual data, interpreting test results, analyzing risks and benefits, quickly navigating technology and calculating dosages.”
The statistics are disturbing, and if you add the limitations that chronic conditions can impose on mental acuity, vision, etc., it’s a recipe for poor medication adherence, errors, hospitalizations and further health decline.
Adding Family into the Equation
Certainly, providers and pharmacists have an important role to play in improving communication and building understanding. However, let me add one more critical person to the team – a family member. As early as 2008, the National Quality Forum declared patient and family engagement improves health outcomes, reduces complications and the costs of care. And I’ve seen it play out in my own family, first with my mother and now with a spouse who is managing several chronic conditions. It matters not that the person is blood-related or part of the patient’s self-described family circle. The presence of a clear-thinking individual who can ask pertinent questions and advocate for a plan of care that aligns with the patient’s lifestyle and preferences can make a huge difference. It can enhance clarity, understanding and the probability of patient compliance. I would urge providers, pharmacists and all who touch patients to be proactively engaging families and patient advocates in the care process.
Be Not Alone
I’m reminded of remarks I heard among participants of the National Patient Safety Foundation’s 2013 Pre-Congress session on patient engagement: The patient most at risk is the patient that comes into the doctor or hospital alone.
Let’s be sure no patient is left in that position – not my loved one, not yours. Let’s get families engaged.