Addressing health literacy

Clear communication is hard enough as it is, but the stakes are particularly high when it comes to health communication. According to a recent story on health literacy in the Washington Post:

“An elderly woman sent home from the hospital develops a life-threatening infection because she doesn’t understand the warning signs listed in the discharge instructions. A man flummoxed by an intake form in a doctor’s office reflexively writes ‘no’ to every question because he doesn’t understand what is being asked…Studies have linked poor health literacy, which disproportionately affects the elderly, the poor and recent immigrants, to higher rates of hospital readmission, expensive and unnecessary complications, and even death. A 2007 study estimated the problem cost the U.S. economy as much as $238 billion annually…[E]ven highly educated patients are affected, particularly if they’re stressed or sick. She cites the initial reaction of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who thought he was cancer-free when his doctor told him several years ago that his prostate biopsy was ‘positive.’ Actually, a positive biopsy indicates the presence of cancer. ” (via)

The story references Health Literacy Advisor software, a Microsoft Word plug-in that “operates like a spell-checker and scans a document for its readability and its health literacy. When it finds words, terms, or writing that clogs comprehension or reduces health literacy, it highlights these terms and offers ‘health literate’ alternatives.” While software’s not a silver bullet, it might help get us to a point where verifying the readability/usability of critical health communication might be considered at least as important as checking for typos.

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