Health literacy is a huge problem


  • The states struggling the most with covid-19 infections also have the least healthy populations.
  • About two out of five American adults are obese, according to the CDC. Mostly because they don’t understand how what they eat effects their health.
  • Only 23% of people get enough exercise and only one in ten eats enough fruit and vegetables, says the CDC.
  • Less than half of Americans are proficient readers, and only 12% are considered by the country’s health department to be “health-literate”.
  • Over one-third struggle with basic health tasks, such as following prescription-drug directions.

Nearly 36 percent of adults in the U.S. have low health literacy, with disproportionate rates among lower-income Americans eligible for Medicaid. Individuals with low health literacy experience greater health care use and costs than those with proficient health literacy. Through all its impacts — medical errors, increased illness and disability, loss of wages, and compromised public health — low health literacy is estimated to cost the U.S. economy up to $236 billion every year. (Source: J. Vernon, A. Trujillo, S. Rosenbaum, and B. DeBuono. Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy. University of Connecticut, 2007.)

A number of factors impact health literacy, including a patient’s receipt of appropriate written health communication materials, ability to accurately interpret written health-related information, and communication with providers. When patients receive written health communication materials that don’t match their reading level, patient education is not effective. Additionally, when patients have low overall literacy skills but high verbal fluency, their verbal fluency can mask their inability to interpret written information.9 Potential communication barriers between patients and health care providers created by low health literacy may lead to a variety of negative health outcomes for the patient. For example, such communication barriers have been associated with patients being more likely to be hospitalized.

In other words, it’s a huge problem. Last week, I helped a college-educated person understand the risks of prostate cancer as he had many questions and just wanted information “in plain English.” According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12 percent of adults in the United States have a high level of health literacy. In other words, nearly nine out of 10 adults lack the skills needed to fully manage their health care and prevent disease.

This is a huge opportunity for pharma to help patients. One of the biggest issues of pharma websites continues to be that content is often at a college reading level forcing people to look elsewhere for the information they need to make treatment choices. Digital agencies should always have people who can write great content that’s easy to understand. You can copy and paste content from your website into MS Word to evaluate the reading level. It should be done regularly to ensure you’re reaching people with good information.

Oncologists have told us, in research, that they would like more resources to give to patients to start chemo so they better understand exactly what’s happening and what they can do to minimize side effects. As one Oncologist told me, “every patient starting chemo should get an information packet written in easy to understand words that help patients and caregivers better understand the treatment.”

Health literacy leads to higher healthcare costs, and it’s time to acknowledge that people want good, credible information in easy-to-understand English.