NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 26, 2007

Miscommunications between patients and health care providers are increasing the chances that people who need medical care will be hurt or killed in the process, according to a report from a health care accreditation group.

While cultural and language barriers pose problems for patient-doctor communication, poor general literacy skills can be just as great an impediment, according to the Joint Commission, which accredits nearly 15,000 U.S. health care organizations and programs.

The commission's recommendations include specific advice for educating and training health care professionals; using well-trained medical interpreters for patients with English comprehension difficulties; and encouraging a culture of easy-to-understand communication in all facets of medical care.

  • The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that 29 percent of the American population has only basic prose literacy skills, and 14 percent has below-basic skills.
  • The below-basic figure includes 3 percent taking an alternative assessment because of language difficulties; another 2 percent weren't tested because they couldn't communicate in English or Spanish.

The report, noting that medical information is often filled with jargon, said that "even those who are most proficient at using text and numbers may be compromised in the understanding of health care information when they are challenged by sickness and feelings of vulnerability."

"The implications around all of this are huge if the patient doesn't understand what they have and what they're taking and why.  You might be putting the patient in harm's way, and they could be killed," says Dennis O'Leary, president of the commission.

Source: Report: Marie Skelton, "Patient illiteracy threatens health care," USA Today, March 26, 2007.

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