Healthcare Blog

Health Care Literacy Might Affect Mortality Rates Of Elderly U.S. Residents, Study Suggests

September 06, 2017

People ages 65 and older who have difficulty comprehending basic health-related material such as prescription bottles and appointment slips are more likely to die within six years than people who can understand the information, according to a study published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the AP/Boston Herald reports (AP/Boston Herald, 7/24). The study, conducted at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and led by internist David Baker, involved 3,260 Medicare beneficiaries in managed care plans in five cities.

The beneficiaries were interviewed in 1997, and information was collected about their race, ethnicity, education, income, weight, chronic medical conditions and health-related behaviors such as smoking and exercise (USA Today, 7/23). Beneficiaries also were given a test to evaluate their ability to understand appointment slips, prescription labels and instructions on how to prepare for an X-ray.

The study found that one-fourth of the beneficiaries were considered medically illiterate. According to the study, nearly 40% of those considered medically illiterate died by the conclusion of the study in 2003, compared with 19% of those in the medically literate group. After factoring in beneficiaries' health at the beginning of the study and other variables, researchers found that medically illiterate beneficiaries were 50% more likely to die than those who were medically literate -- a number "much higher" than the researchers expected, Baker said.

According to Baker, the inability to understand medical information and instructions makes it difficult for beneficiaries to manage chronic conditions, which can lead to more serious health problems. Joanne Schwartzberg, director of aging and community health at the American Medical Association, said that evidence shows that as many as 90 million U.S. residents have trouble understanding medical information (AP/Boston Herald, 7/24).

An abstract of the study is available online.

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