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One-third of Americans are health illiterate

May 16, 2011

I came across a story on the low level of health literacy in Fierce Healthcare, which it had summarized from the Washington Post. It continues to trouble me. The Post reported on a 2006 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education that found 36 percent of adults to have a basic or below-basic understanding of health material. According to the excerpt, “90 million Americans understand health information at a fifth-grade level or lower. And just over half have intermediate comprehension.”

What is health literacy? According to HSS (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services), “Health literacy is the ability to understand health information and to use that information to make good decisions about your health and medical care… Limited health literacy can affect your ability to:

  • Fill out complex forms
  • Locate providers and services
  • Share personal information such as health history
  • Take care of yourself
  • Manage a chronic disease
  • Understand how to take medicines

Yet we know that health information is among the most queried topics on the Web. We also know from recent studies that not all health information is good information. Recently, a team of physicians at Harvard Medical School evaluated the quality/safety of 10 diabetes social networks on 28 indicators and published the results in the Journal of the American Informatics Association. In their paper, Social but Safe? Quality and Safety of Diabetes-related Online Social Networks, they found that the quality of information was variable on many levels. For example:

  • Only half were in sync with diabetes science/clinical practice recommendations
  • 70% lacked medical disclaimer use
  • Misinformation about a diabetes ‘cure’ was found on four moderated sites
  • Of nine sites with advertising, ads for unfounded ‘cures’ appeared on three

Recall from the BUPA Health Pulse study I wrote about in March that only a small percentage (less than 25%) of health seekers bother to verify the information they find online.

We live in a time where we have rapid, nearly unlimited, access to health information. Yet we also live in a time where over one-third of the population is considered health illiterate and even fewer check the veracity of information they find on the Web. Therefore, it seems to me, that we have a large number of people who might not understand how to manage their disease and a lot of poor/unsubstantiated information on the Internet waiting to prey on that. We have created yet one more problem to solve in our healthcare system. I don’t have the answer, but would love to hear thoughts from my readers and others who care about this topic.

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