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Study Indicates How Poor Health Literacy Leads To Costly Medical Errors

A study by CRICO Strategies showed roughly 30% of medical malpractice claims were based on some type of failure in communication. This may include a failure in sharing information or problems with interpretation. Approximately 23% of the U.S. population is deemed as having low health literacy. Of these individuals, about 30% classified their health as either fair or poor.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services defines health literacy as a person’s ability or capacity to process and comprehend basic information relating to their health. Based on the intricacy of today’s healthcare system, it should come as no surprise that health literacy is a concern. Key aspects of personal health including preventing illness and disease, as well as determining where and when to seek professional medical treatment, are largely reliant on literacy.

Health Literacy

Literacy is generally considered to be an individual’s capability of reading, writing, expressing, computing, and solving problems. These are all critical aspects in the following areas:

  • Maintaining employment
  • Achievement of personal goals
  • The development of knowledge and interpretation of information

Illiteracy is defined as an inability to read and write. A person with low literacy skills is not completely illiterate but just has limited abilities in these areas. Health literacy may be dictated by a combination of individual and universal factors including:

  • The capability of understanding health-related provider communications
  • Working knowledge of health-related topics
  • Demands within the realm of healthcare and public systems of health
  • Demands that are situational or based on a context

Common Related Problems

Having limited health literacy may specifically have an adverse effect on:

  • Navigation of the healthcare environment, such as completing forms that are complex and locating providers
  • The ability to explain one’s key information and medical history to a provider
  • The ability to effectively manage existing health conditions
  • Interpreting risks and probabilities, as well as comprehending causal aspects of diet and exercise
  • The ability to understand numeric cholesterol or blood pressure readings
  • Calculation of copays and insurance deductibles

PRC National Health Study

Professional Research Consultants reported some of their key findings recently in Becker’s Hospital Review. They found that only 58% of those with limited health literacy regularly engaged in their healthcare. While 18% of the general population defined their physical health as either fair or poor, 28% of those with limited health literacy do. Similar results were recognized in terms of mental health.

Demographical Considerations

Those with limited health literacy are more likely to share some of these characteristics: male, Latino, lower income and educational levels, and unemployed. Many of these limitations stem from language barriers. Those with limited health literacy that are at the greatest risk of poor medical outcomes include those with hypertension, asthma, or diabetes.

Preventative Measures

Those with poor health literacy are less likely to seek preventative care including mammograms, pap smears, and vaccines. They tend to ultimately enter medical treatment at points where their conditions have further progressed. This behavior results in more instances of emergency room visits and hospital admissions.

About the Author

Briggs Bedigian
Briggs Bedigian

H. Briggs Bedigian (“Briggs”) is a founding partner of Gilman & Bedigian, LLC.  Prior to forming Gilman & Bedigian, LLC, Briggs was a partner at Wais, Vogelstein and Bedigian, LLC, where he was the head of the firm’s litigation practice.  Briggs’ legal practice is focused on representing clients involved in medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. 


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