Limited “Health Literacy” Can Increase Risk of Medication Errors and Other Complications

A significant percentage of Americans have “health literacy” ranked as “basic” or “below basic,” according to a study conducted by the federal government. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines “health literacy” as the ability to read, comprehend, and make use of everyday written medical or other health information. Low levels of health literacy can put patients at greater risk of injury due to misdiagnosis or medication errors. Patients may not communicate their medical history or other important information to their doctor, leading to an incorrect diagnosis or treatment. They may also misunderstand instructions for medications, potentially leading to injury. Numerous medical organizations have programs to promote health literacy and to facilitate communication between patients and medical professionals in order to improve treatment and prevent injury.

The NCES conducted a Highlights of Findings” target=”_blank”>National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) in 2003. The NAAL surveyed reading skills and other indicators of literacy around the country, including health literacy. It identified four levels of health literacy: proficient, intermediate, basic, and below basic. About thirty-six percent of U.S. adults, or roughly 77 million people, had “basic” and “below basic” health literacy. It is important to note that any individual person’s level of health literacy is highly dependent on that person’s circumstances. The problem affects people across society.

Among age groups, the NAAL found that people age 65 and over had the highest percentage of “basic” and “below average” health literacy, about fifty-nine percent. Comparing the results based on level of education, nearly half of people with “less than/some high school” were categorized “below basic,” and more than one-fourth were ranked “basic.” Most interestingly, the study compared literacy scores among types of health insurance, or the lack thereof. People with employer-provided insurance had the highest rates of health literacy, while people with Medicare or Medicaid had the lowest.

People with lower health literacy have a greater risk of chronic illnesses, complications from injuries, and medication errors, according to the American Medical Association (AMA). This includes not only the elderly and people with lower levels of education, but also many ethnic minorities, immigrants, and people with limited English proficiency. The AMA estimates that the number of people in the U.S. with limited health literacy is much higher than the NAAL’s findings, possibly as high as 90 million people. Errors and complications related to lower health literacy may cause more than $200 billion in excess medical costs, according to some estimates.

Patients who may have limited health literacy may have difficulty communicating important health information to their doctor. The AMA further notes that many patients may conceal their lack of understanding from their doctor out of embarrassment, fear, or shame. They may also misunderstand a doctor’s instructions about their medication or treatment. Doctors and other medical professionals have a duty to communicate all needed information to their patients, but they can only make decisions based on the available information. It is therefore crucial that patients and their advocates provide a doctor with as much information as possible.

The attorneys at Lebowitz & Mzhen assist people in Maryland who have been injured by pharmacy and other medication errors, such as drugs prescribed, dispensed, or administered incorrectly. Contact us today online, or call (800) 654-1949 to see if you may be entitled to recover damages.

More Blog Posts:

Johns Hopkins Study Recommends Training of Nurse-Pharmacist Teams to Review Patient Drug Regimens, as a Way to Prevent Medication Errors, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer Blog, August 8, 2012
Study Finds Use of Interpreters in Hospital Emergency Departments Reduces Medication Errors Almost by Half, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer Blog, June 28, 2012
National Patient Safety Board Would Reduce Medication Errors, Say Celebrity Supporters, Pharmacy Error Injury Lawyer Blog, June 7, 2012

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