Health literacy is the degree to which individuals are able to obtain, process, and understand the basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Health information can be overwhelming, even for people with advanced literacy skills. Moreover, information provided in a stressful or unfamiliar situation is unlikely to be retained. The health care industry estimates that an excess of $230 billion a year in health care costs is linked to low adult literacy.
Only 12 percent of adults have a high level of health literacy, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. In other words, nearly nine out of 10 adults lack the skills needed to fully manage their health care and prevent disease. Fourteen percent of adults are considered to have low health literacy. These adults are more likely to report their health as poor, and are more likely to lack health insurance than adults with high health literacy. Low literacy has been linked to poor health outcomes, higher rates of hospitalization, death, and less use of preventive services. All of these are linked to higher health care costs.
How many people (at home) mistakenly take the wrong dose of their medicine?
In 2005, Target introduced the ClearRx prescription bottles. The signature red container opened on the bottom, which allowed the label to wrap around the top, so it could be seen from above. It included a flat surface that customers found easier to read than the typical curved pill bottle, and it came with color-coded rings to help family members quickly tell their medicines apart. As anyone who takes multiple medications knows, taking the right medication at the right time is crucial to treatment and can prevent dangerous and sometimes lethal mistakes.
But Target’s popular bottles are gone, and people have flooded social media with requests to “bring back the bottle.” According to Consumerist, a Target representative said the ClearRx patents were included in the sale of Target’s pharmacy business to CVS, but the bottles aren't currently being used. CVS said it stopped using Target’s bottles because it’s more efficient to use the same bottles at all locations.
There is no question that health care services can do a better job making information clear and easy to use. Target’s ClearRx system should motivate other companies to improve their labeling and packaging for prescription drugs.
A Huge Burden for Future Generations
When one accounts for how much current low health literacy will cost us in the future , the real cost of low health literacy becomes exponentially more.
Fear, embarrassment, and a non-user-friendly health care system can inhibit many people from seeking clarification on their treatment instructions or medical advice. Cultural and language barriers, as well as low general literacy levels, can also exacerbate the problem of effective communication between patients and health care professionals.
Low health literacy leads to enormous costs for both the health system and society. The money that could be saved by improving health literacy could be redirected to address other social needs.
Health care professionals need to both recognize and address health literacy related problems. This means ensuring that patients understand instructions and are able to navigate the health care system. There also needs to be a focus on improving patient education.