Trend of ‘medical illiteracy’ has to be reversed

According to the Institute of Medicine, 90 million American adults are health illiterate and lack the necessary skills and understanding to comprehend medical jargon. This lack of understanding leads to billions of dollars in unnecessary health care costs.

While illiteracy in general is not an uncommon problem, when a person’s health is at stake, it brings the issue to a whole new level. Health care practitioners need to be aware of this problem and its possible consequences. Additionally, awareness of this issue should form part of the curriculum for medical and nursing schools.

“Health literacy is fundamental to quality care,” IOM Committee Chair David A. Kindig said in a news release issued by H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute.

“The public’s ability to understand and make informed decisions about their health is a frequently ignored problem. …” Kindig said.

Kindig also stated that most medical professionals and policymakers have little to no understanding of the extent of this problem. If patients do not understand vital information regarding their health, the quality of the care they receive, along with their health, can decline.

The problem can work in reverse if a patient was to overreact to a diagnosis because they confused, for example, the viral infection herpangina with the sexually transmitted infection herpes. While herpangina is known to cause pus filled sores on the throat and tongue, according to WebMD. It is not affiliated with the disease that infects some sexually active Americans and it is known to last for only a few days, not a lifetime.

The Institute admits the need for a concentrated effort on the part of health care and education systems, which likely would also affect nursing and medical school programs at USF.

Exacerbating the problem, IOM said health systems are becoming increasingly more complex as they are, “involving new technologies, scientific jargon and complicated medical procedures and forms.”

Unless they are in the habit of carrying a medical dictionary around with them, patients will not be aware of these advances. The problem only has the potential to worsen as further medical advances are made.

With medical facilities and research centers, as well as entire curriculums concerning the medical field located on campus, universities such as USF need to take advantage of their ability to reverse this trend. Students and practitioners need to be aware of the illiteracy problem early. Enrolled medical students need to learn better ways to deal with their future patients as the patients’ health could be at risk if they fail to comprehend the advice they are given.