AMA tackles low health literacy

March 1, 2001

Pharmaceutical Representative

This year, according to the Chicago-based American Medical Association's AMA Foundation, the U.S. healthcare system will unnecessarily spend about $73 billion in extra doctor visits, hospitalizations and longer hospital stays because patients didn't understand what their doctor said or how to take their medication appropriately.

This year, according to the Chicago-based American Medical Association's AMA Foundation, the U.S. healthcare system will unnecessarily spend about $73 billion in extra doctor visits, hospitalizations and longer hospital stays because patients didn't understand what their doctor said or how to take their medication appropriately.

This phenomenon, known as "low health literacy," occurs when patients cannot understand, interpret or act on basic health information, such as instructions on prescriptions, appointment slips, informed consent documents, insurance forms and other health educational materials.

In response, the AMA Foundation is developing a program to address the issue.

"Although some pioneering work has been done, we believe that work is still needed before the total extent of this problem is fully recognized and solutions implemented," said Herman I. Abromowitz, AMA Foundation president. "The AMA Foundation is proud to be at the forefront of this effort, because we believe that by increasing health literacy we can significantly improve the quality of healthcare in America."

While leading healthcare groups and trade associations continue to hope for federal funding to research and understand the problem, develop demonstration programs for Medicare and Medicaid, and create other national programs on health literacy, there are several things patients can do to help themselves, according to the AMA.

Tips for patients

The following tips, offered by health literacy expert Ruth Parker, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University, may help patients better understand the healthcare information they receive:


•Â Patients who have difficulty understanding what their doctor is saying or are confused should bring a friend or family member to appointments.


•Â Patients should try to identify important questions about their condition, disease, illness or treatment and discuss them during their doctor's visit.


•Â Patients should take all their medications to each doctor visit so the physician can see what they are currently taking.


•Â Patients who are given instructions for self-care of medical problems should review them with the doctor to be sure they correctly understand what they need to know to take care of themselves.


•Â Patients should find out who they should call if they have questions later on.


•Â Patients should always ask their doctor to explain information in language they understand.


•Â Do not be afraid to ask for help.

The ultimate goal of the program is to improve the patient-physician relationship. Said Abromowitz, "We want to continue to improve patient-physician communications, and to enable us to work in partnership with our patients to diminish the effects of low health literacy." PR