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When we talk about health care literacy, how important is the word literacy?

Health Care Literacy

I was getting on an airplane the other day and was following two young women down the aisle of the plane.  One woman held an mominfant and the other their tickets.  They had stopped and spoken briefly to the flight attendant upon their entrance to the plane and seems for some reason to be struggling to find their seats.  One of the moms turned to me and asked me where they were supposed to sit.  The young mom was standing at row 12 and showed me a ticket for seats 12 D, E and F.  At first I was a little confused.  But then it all became clear.  Both moms were illiterate.

I sat in my seat and thought a bit about what it means to venture out into the world with absolutely no ability to read.  How would you find your gate?  Let alone, how would you be able to find the right parking garage.  I'm sure that in a limited world, like your own small grocery store or gas station, you'd be able to function with a certain degree of familiarity with your surroundings.  But taking an airplane broke all the familiar routines.  The one thought that rose to the top of my mind was the simple fact that for these two moms, this was a really scary thing to do.

It's got to be tough to venture out into the world with no reading skills, but how do these moms navigate health care?  How can they complete a meaningful encounter with a medical office?  And how do they follow through on directions, prescriptions or even know when to return for a follow-up appointment?

How do illiterate patients survive an appointment in a medical office?  Usually not well.  I've seen many health care providers become intolerant of patients who may not be able to communicate effectively.  Their irritation becomes a wonderful opportunity for the illiterate patient to become angry and leave a medical office.  It's not that the patient was mad.  It's simply that the patient was embarrassed and scared.

I'm fortunate that I came from a socio-economic demographic that found reading to be a necessary life skill, and even more fortunate that I was able to use my reading skills to become a healthcare provider.  Yeah, it might take a little extra time to help someone who cannot read, but if health care literacy is at the core of good health care, it's imperative that we all find a way to help those who are illiterate find a way to better health.


Dr. Jeffrey Oster

Jeffrey A. Oster, DPM
Medical Advisor

Updated 12/27/19

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