The ScienceDaily pointed out recently that illiterate patients are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to getting proper healthcare, even to the point of having a higher mortality rate than literate patients. Another good discussion of the topic can be found in a July 24th, 2007 essay in the New York Times Health Section on illiteracy and the healthcare system by a Dr. Erin Marcus. As the ScienceDaily article and Dr. Marcus make clear, lliterate and semiliterate patients face many grave problems when confronted with the healthcare bureaucracy.
Dr. Marcus points out that health educators recommend that patients be given materials at an eighth-grade reading level or lower-but most consent forms and HIPAA forms and other such documents are at a much higher reading level. This has obvious, and negative, consequences for patients and can be a reason for patient “noncompliance” with doctors’ recommendations.
Patients with low literacy levels should, if possible, seek out doctors they trust to explain these materials to them and should not hesitate to ask for clarification.
The people with the real power to change this, however, are not the patients. Rather, it is the healthcare administrators who can arrange for patients to be given accessible information in accordance with the advice of health educators.