Last week, Ezra Klein put the issue of health literacy back on our radar screen with a link to a recent Washington Post article, A Silent Epidemic. The article discusses the complexity of the health care system, and how a huge swath of the population is unprepared to effectively engage that system because of functional illiteracy, language, or culture. The article cites a 1999 report by the American Medical Association finding that most medical forms are written at a graduate school level while the average U.S. adult has eighth-grade level literacy skills. Another study cited painted a bleaker picture:
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1995 found that more than 80 percent of patients treated at two of the nation’s largest public hospitals could not understand instructions written at the fourth-grade level for the preparation of gastrointestinal X-rays known as an upper GI series. A 1999 study of more than 3,200 Medicare recipients found that one in three native-born patients could not answer a question about normal blood sugar readings even after being given a paper to read that listed the correct answer. And a study of 2,500 elderly patients published last year in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reported that patients with low health literacy were twice as likely to die during a five-year period as those with adequate skills, regardless of age, race or income.
The Joint Commission recently issued a report 65-page report on this issue entitled “What Did the Doctor Say?”: Improving Health Literacy to Protect Patient Safety (PDF), but if you’d like a quick executive summary, see recent press release on Low Health Literacy Puts Patients at Risk, which offers a summary of the issue along with some specific recommendations for healthcare providers to address the problem. These include:
- The sensitization, education and training of clinicians and health care organization leaders and staff regarding health literacy issues and patient-centered communications.
- The development of patient-friendly navigational aids in health care facilities.
- The enhanced training and use of interpreters for patients.
- The re-design of informed consent forms and the informed consent process.
- The development of insurance enrollment forms and benefits explanations that are “client-centered.”
- The use of established patient communication methods such as “teach back.”
- The expanded adaptation and use of adult learning centers to meet patient health literacy needs.
- The development of patient self-management skills.
- Health care organization assessment of the literacy levels and language needs of the communities they serve.
- The design of public health interventions that are audience-centered and can be communicated in the context of the lives of the target population.
- The integration of the patient communication priority into emerging physician pay-for-performance programs.
- The provision of medical liability insurance discounts for physicians who apply patient-centered communication techniques.
Workers compensation implications
This issue has great relevance to employers for the implications that health literacy can have on workers compensation, general disability, and general work force wellness. Good outcomes require good communication. If you want to ensure that your workers get good medical care and return to health and to work as soon as possible, effective communication between the injured worker and the treating physician is essential. And it would appear that if the average reading comprehension is at eighth grade level, few employers are immune. The challenges for employers with a high population of unskilled workers or workers who have or no English are even greater.
First and foremost, employers and managers should understand the risks inherent in their work force. Illiteracy is also an issue that with enormous implications for safety and training. Organizations with a work population that is at high risk from a health literacy perspective should also take particular care to select physicians who have cultural competence. And when a work injury occurs, there may be a need for a health care liaison to help and advocate for the injured worker. For complex cases, this might be a nurse case manager. For simple injuries, employers might assign a workers comp injury coordinator who would follow up with the injured worker frequently during the recovery process, and verify that medical instructions are understood and being followed. A translator might also be part of the care team if the worker has limited English.
When it comes to safety, make sure you speak the same language!
A health literacy crisis looming?
Cultural competence in healthcare and beyond