The most common characteristics of low health literacy are age, education level, and ethnicity; however, it impacts citizens from all segments of society (Flaherty, 2011).
Low health literacy affects one’s ability to:
- Fill out complex forms
- Share personal information
- Get important screening tests
- Take care of one’s self
- Manage a chronic disease
- Understand how to take medicine
(Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2010)
In a large study done by the American Medical Association it was shown that one third of English-speaking patients at public hospitals in the study could not read and understand basic health-related materials. Overall, “42% of patients in that study were unable to comprehend directions for taking medication on an empty stomach, 26% could not understand information on an appointment slip, and 60% could not understand a standard consent form” (American Medical Association, 1999).
This study also revealed that annual health care costs of patients reading at lowest grade levels were more than double the overall population studied. Those patients with inadequate literacy were nearly twice as likely to have been hospitalized during the previous year (31.5% vs 14.9%). Individuals with low literacy skills have health care costs 4 times higher than those with high health literacy skills (Weiss, 1999).
Additionally, patients with low literacy can have adverse health outcomes, such as increased incidence of chronic illness and higher risk of hospitalization (AHRQ, 2007). They are likely to have a 50% increased risk of hospitalization (Baker, 1998). The economic impact of health literacy is great in that low literacy costs the United States economy between $106 billion to $238 billion annually (Glassman, 2013).
Low health literacy can greatly harm one’s health. If someone is having a difficult time understanding instructions for certain medications, they might be having a hard time managing their health in general (Clancy, 2010). In relation, medical errors might be made due to poor health literacy since only about 50% of patients take their medications as directed (NPSF, 2011). This is why open communication between the patient and physician is important.
Overall, people with low health literacy tend to “make more medication or treatment errors, are less able to comply with treatments, lack the skills needed to successfully negotiate the health care system, and are at a higher risk for hospitalization than people with adequate literacy skills” (NPSF, 2011).