Understanding the true impact of health illiteracy

Before students can graduate medical school, they're often instructed on the importance of understanding their patients. They're taught to ask the right questions that merit the information they need to make a diagnosis and properly treat a condition. However, one factor that's not nearly as emphasized in the training process is making sure that patients understand the information provided to them as well. Health illiteracy is a major concern in medicine today, but there are ways for physicians and nurses to better teach patients about their well-being.

An expensive problem
Health illiteracy contributes to many issues. First, it can result in an increase of hospital visits as well as prescription drug confusion, improper management of a treatable health condition and even death, in extreme cases, explained CityLimits.org. In addition to the physical risks associated with health illiteracy, financial issues are also a major concern. When a person is unaware how to properly treat a health condition or provide the right care for a loved one, it requires the country to pay a large sum of money. Health illiteracy ultimately costs the public between $106 billion and $236 billion every year.

"Language barriers can deeply affect health literacy."

Language barriers  can affect health literacy. It can be difficult to communicate the necessary steps to take for proper health even when physicians speak the same language as their patients, let alone when there are language and cultural differences added to the mix.

However, language is just one of the many reasons for the disconnect between healthcare professionals and patients. Even when patients understand what is being communicated, there's still a good chance that they aren't sure why they're being prescribed a certain drug or told to make specific changes to their lifestyles. According to a 2015 analysis published in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, this is a major reason for lower levels of health literacy in women with breast cancer.

"Our results illustrate the lack of understanding many patients have about their cancers and have identified a critical need for improved patient education and provider awareness of this issue," said Rachel Freedman, M.D., MPH, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. "Improving [a patient's] understanding about why a particular treatment is important for her individual situation may lead to more informed decisions and better adherence to treatment."

Health literacy begins in the doctor's office.Health literacy begins in the doctor's office.

How to bridge the gap
Fortunately, there are many ways physicians can improve health literacy among their patients. In an age where information is literally at people's fingertips, there are a number of ways to educate the public on everything from general healthy lifestyle tips to specific treatment options for diseases. First, accompanying literature can help act as a tangible resource for those who may not have been able to properly devote their attention to a physician's orders. Also, communication outside of the doctor's office can encourage patients to learn more about their conditions and make their health a higher priority. For these reasons, it's important to work with a trusted healthcare marketing agency that can effectively reach patients and communicate important information.

There are also strides being made in mobile health, which refers to mobile apps designed specifically with the intent of improving a person's well-being and giving them easier access to resources regarding their health. The "Share the Journey" app was recently announced and is now available for those with breast cancer. Using their smartphones or tablets, they're able to communicate with others going through similar situations. They're able to share their experiences with treatment, discuss their symptoms and be there for one another. Open communication like this can help improve health literacy and simply serve as a form of emotional support during challenging times.