Literacy In Wisconsin: Health Literacy Programs Seek To Educate Patients And Doctors
by Erika Janik
A woman checks “no” to every question on an intake form in a doctor’s office because she doesn’t understand what’s being asked. An elderly man takes four times the recommended dosage of his medication because he can’t read the label.
Each of these examples illustrates what officials with Wisconsin Literacy Inc., a coalition of 77 literacy agencies that strives to make learning to read, write and interpret language less intimidating, has called a pervasive and under-recognized problem: people’s alarmingly low levels of health literacy.
The Institute of Medicine describes health literacy as the degree to which individuals can obtain, process and understand basic information and services needed to make decisions regarding their health.
Dr. Paul Smith has been working toward improving health literacy in Wisconsin for years. He’s a physician and professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and the medical advisor for Wisconsin Health Literacy, a division of Wisconsin Literacy, Inc.
“Almost anybody can have trouble with health literacy at some point in time,” said Smith. “It depends a lot on your background information, what you know about. You can know a lot about one medical problem but nothing about another medical problem.”
Smith said the complexity of the American health care system makes it challenging for people to know where to go, whom to talk to and how to find answers to questions. Many in the health field are unaware of the enormity of the issue.
“We have these very educated people who have learned a new language in nursing school, pharmacy school, or medical school and they sort of forget that the rest of the world doesn’t know that language,” said Smith.
Health care professionals often think they have good communication skills, said Smith, but when one asks patients after an appointment, many admit to not understanding a lot of what was said. This feeds another problem.
“People are often reluctant to ask questions when they don’t understand things,” said Smith.
Both patients and doctors are part of the literacy solution. Those in the medical field can educate themselves about the issues and strive to improve their communication. There are many organizations, including Smith’s Wisconsin Health Literacy, working on that.
Patients need to educate themselves, too. Even after 30 years as a physician, Smith said he’s often surprised how unprepared people are when they come to his office.
“Many patients haven’t thought about what they want to get out of the visit,” said Smith.
Smith urges patients and their families to think ahead.
“’What are the concerns I have?’ ‘What are the questions I have?’ ‘What are the things I need to get done like paperwork?’ And actually talk about that at the beginning of the visit,” said Smith.
Most importantly, she asked people to be willing to ask questions, even if the doctor seems to be in a hurry, and find out who they can contact if they have additional questions.
“Don’t let the doctor leave the room without getting your questions answered,” said Smith.
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