Low health literacy in older Americans is linked to poorer health status and a higher risk of death, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).
The report, Literacy Interventions and Outcomes: An Update of the Literacy and Health Outcomes Systematic Review of the Literature found an association between low health literacy in all adults, regardless of age, and more frequent use of hospital emergency rooms and inpatient care, compared with other adults. It also found a link between low health literacy and a lower likelihood of getting flu shots and of understanding medical labels and instructions and a greater likelihood of taking medicines incorrectly compared with adults with higher health literacy. In addition, researchers found a relationship between poor health literacy among adult women and underuse of mammograms.
Furthermore, evidence from a small but growing body of studies suggests that differences in health literacy levels are related to racial and ethnic disparities, says AHRQ. For example, flu shot rates among seniors, enrollment of children in health insurance programs, and taking medications as instructed by a health care professional are lower among minorities.
In May 2010, HHS launched the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy to engage organizations, professionals, policymakers, communities, individuals, and families in a multi-sector effort to improve health literacy. The plan calls for improving jargon-filled language, dense writing, and complex explanations that often fill patient handouts, medical forms, health Web sites, and recommendations to the public, among other initiatives.