NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Illiteracy Is Dangerous To Your Health

March 30, 2000

It is both widespread and costly, say experts, but health illiteracy -- the inability to read, understand and act correctly on health information -- is a largely unrecognized problem.

The 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey found that 21 percent of Americans are functionally illiterate -- reading at or below a fifth-grade level -- while an additional 27 percent are only marginally literate, having difficulty with reading comprehension and/or computational skills.

Health illiteracy is broader than the inability to read, encompassing the inability to understand what is read.

  • A recent study of English-speaking patients at public hospitals found that 27 percent could not read their appointment slips and 42 percent did not understand all the information on their prescription bottles.
  • A 1997 study of patients at two public hospitals found that those with inadequate literacy skills were five times more likely to misinterpret their prescriptions and averaged two more doctor visits per year, compared to those with adequate skills.
  • Low health literacy is particularly common among older and low-income people, with more than 66 percent of U.S. adults age 60 and older having inadequate or marginal literacy skills, and about 45 percent of all functionally illiterate adults living in poverty.

Studies show low health literacy skills cost the U.S. health care system approximately $73 billion annually in unnecessary doctor visits, hospitalizations and longer hospital stays.

Source: "AMA Foundation Tackles Health Illiteracy," American Medical News, March 20, 2000, American Medical Association.


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