Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Health Literacy is a Priority

As medical communicators, we have access every day to the latest information in health and medicine. This experience probably makes us feel good about our ability to understand health information and make informed health decisions. But more than half of Americans don't have that same ability, also known as health literacy.

Health literacy is the theme of the December 2010 AMWA Journal, with two research-based articles and a practical guide on the topic, along with an editorial that provides an overview of the issue and the medical communicator's role. The Journal is honored to have as contributors to this themed issue some of the top experts in the field: Leonard and Cecilia Doak, considered to be the grandparents of health literacy and the authors of the gold standard,
essential text for writing effective health information materials; Beth Lanning and Eva Doyle, leading academicians in health education; AMWA member Helen Osborne, founder of Health Literacy Out Loud (podcasts) and Health Literacy Month; and AMWA member Sharon Nancekivell, MA, who has led numerous AMWA workshops and sessions on plain language and writing effective patient educational materials.

The December issue of the Journal is the first to have a theme in nearly a decade. The high cost of inadequate health literacy warrants the attention. The human cost of inadequate health literacy is high. People with limited health literacy are less likely to use preventive health services, more likely to have chronic conditions, and more apt to be hospitalized. And older people with low health literacy have a 50% greater chance of dying earlier. The estimated price tag for low health literacy? $238 billion a year. Clearly, improving health literacy must be a priority.

The AMWA Journal joins a host of publications highlighting the problem of health literacy. The topic has been addressed in the lay press, with articles in US News & World Report and The Wall Street Journal, and research on the subject has been reported in prestigious medical journals, such as the Archives of Internal Medicine, the Annals of Internal Medicine, and The New England Journal of Medicine. One indication of the importance of health literacy within our own field is that three of the top 10 articles in the Journal of Communication in Healthcare in 2010 focused on issues in health literacy. Lucky for us, access to those top 10 articles is free, and I encourage you to check them out.

I also urge you to review as many resources on health literacy as possible. You can begin with the list of resources Sharon Nancekivell includes with her editorial. You will also find a wealth of information on health literacy and communicating effectively, as well as Web-based training, on several government Web sites, including the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, and the US Food and Drug Administration. The American Medical Association has a comprehensive section on health literacy, and the Group Health Research Institute provides a toolkit and online training to improve the readability of consent forms and other print materials used in communications with study participants. Lastly, thanks to the generosity of the Doaks, their seminal book, Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills (which is out of print) can be downloaded free from the Harvard School of Public Health Web site.

Armed with knowledge on health literacy, medical communicators can make a substantial difference in improving health literacy. We can promote better patient understanding by making educational materials, informed consent forms, and drug information and labels easier to read. We can foster better physician awareness by highlighting the importance of assessing patients' health literacy and communicating effectively in our continuing medical education programs. We can add to the evidence base in communication theory by making health literacy a priority for research. And we can ensure optimal training in effective communication by positioning ourselves as the most qualified professionals for the task.

Learning to write more clearly for people with lower health literacy will not only help improve the health of millions of Americans, it will help us strengthen our skills as well as enhance the credibility of our profession.