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Low Health Literacy, High Health Costs

Anna Webster, for HealthLeaders Media, August 3, 2011

When Joe Smith walks into a bar, chances are he isn't going to order an “alcoholic libation” to quench his thirst. He's going to order a beer.

The same scenario—minus the beer—applies when Joe Smith walks into a hospital or clinic for treatment. He isn't going to ask the doc to check for “hyperlipidemia” —more likely he’ll ask about high cholesterol.

Mr. Smith represents an average patient with average health literacy—the ability to read, understand, and act on health information. Patients with low health literacy may have trouble understanding medication instructions or comprehending the details of a consent form.

Health literacy is one of the least recognized, but one of the most widespread challenges to achieving better health outcomes and lowering healthcare costs in the U.S., according to the National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF).

This problem, when quantified, is astounding. Low health literacy costs the U.S. more than $58 billion annually and nearly half the U.S. adult population (90 million people) fall into the low or basic health literacy category. Countless common medical errors can be prevented if the gap in health literacy is addressed.

According to NPSF, typically the low health literate patient has:

  • A poorer health status
  • Less treatment adherence
  • A greater number of medication/treatment errors
  • Higher rates of health services utilization, including 29%–69% higher hospitalization rates
  • Higher health care costs:
    • $50–$73 billion in additional health expenditures annually
    • $7,500 more in annual healthcare costs for a person with limited health literacy, versus a person with higher health literacy skills
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