According to the National Library of Medicine, health literacy is “the degree to which people can obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services they need to make appropriate health decisions.” A 2003 U.S. Dept. of Education literacy assessment of more than 19,000 Americans found that nearly 90 percent of adults lack some level of skills in reading, understanding, and acting on medical information.
Helen Osborne, a national health literacy consultant, likes to say that health literacy is about mutual communication. She recently told American Medical News that health literacy “is when patients or anyone on the receiving end of health communication and anyone on the giving end truly understand one another.”
Visual impairments also affect health literacy
I bring this topic up today because I recently experienced a lot of difficulty reading consent forms and other health information before and after having eye surgery. Even though the nurses knew I was having trouble seeing with both eyes, not one person offered to read the forms to me, or at the very least, provide a magnifier. Following my surgery, I was given some discharge instructions and a brochure about the procedure—I had to ask my 77-year-old mother to read them to me. For the first time, I experienced what it felt like to be in the shoes of someone who struggles to read and act on medical information.
Health literacy tips and patient advocacy suggestions for health care professionals
Although many health literacy studies focus on poor reading skills, including this latest study that suggests elderly patients with poor reading skills have an increased risk of death, visual impairments can also be a barrier to communications between providers and patients. Based on my recent experiences, I’d like to make some suggestions to health care providers, and in particular, eye doctors and retina specialists who have many senior patients with macular degeneration or other visual impairments:
• Use large print (at least 14-point type) on all written materials, especially consent forms, hospital discharge instructions, and brochures that provide information about health conditions or medical procedures.
• Provide visual aids, such as magnifiers or audiotapes, in waiting rooms, examination rooms, and recovery areas. Or, offer to read information aloud if you detect a patient is having difficulty.
• Provide additional lighting options in the waiting and recovery rooms. (The waiting room at my doctor’s office had two lamps in addition to the ceiling lights, but I could not turn either one on because they are on a timer.)
• Magazines and newspapers are always welcome in the waiting room, but they’re pretty useless if one can’t read the small print! Do your patients a favor and subscribe to a few large-print magazines — Reader’s Digest and The New York Times come in large print, as do many crossword puzzle books.
On her health literacy website, Helen shares additional strategies for healthcare providers to improve communications with patients who are blind or have visual problems. She also talks with Dr. Cynthia Stuen of Lighthouse International about age-related vision loss on this very informative podcast.
Although my suggestions and Helen’s strategies are geared toward health care providers, I encourage you to speak up and ask your own doctors to take whatever steps are necessary to help you read and understand health information. I’m going to get things started by printing this blog and bringing copies to my doctors’ offices and to the local libraries for Healthy Vision Month (May 1-31).
By the way, I have asked the people at WordPress to add a feature that allows bloggers to increase the type size on their posts, but so far there is no so option.