A Lack of Understanding Medical Information Could Be Deadly

By: Red Hot Mamas

Published: June 25, 2010

Are you medically illiterate? Your life may depend on your answer! According to a study recently released in the Archives of Internal Medicine (July 23, 2007), a lack of health knowledge is associated with higher mortality rates. The study focused on people age 65 and older. They were tested on their ability to read medical information (i.e., prescription labels, instructions on how to prepare for an x-ray, appointment slips, etc.).

Results found that 1/4 of the 3,260 people who participated in the study were medically illiterate. Forty percent of those who were medically illiterate died during the study. Medically illiterate patients were 50% more likely to die than the others who participated in the study.

According to Dr. Joanne Schwartzberg, director of aging and community health at the American Medical Associate, “There are approximately 90 million Americans who have trouble with medical literacy”. This is about half of the population in our country! Surprised? So are we!

The data suggests that by simply improving health literacy, we can have a major impact on overall mortality. So, what is health literacy? According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, health literacy is defined as, “The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions”. Health literacy is not merely the ability to read. It includes your ability to listen, analyze and make decisions in health situations.

An interesting fact from the American Medical Association reveals poor health literacy is “a stronger predictor of a person’s health than age, income, employment status, education level and race”. So now that you know how important it is, what should you do?

In order to ensure you are doing your part, you must be actively involved in your health decisions. Don’t just leave it up to your doctor. Studies have shown that people who are more involved with their care tend to get better results. On the contrary, uninformed, uninvolved patients are less likely to follow their doctor’s advice on treatment and using it effectively.

Ask your doctor the right questions. Clearly express your health concerns and be able to accurately describe your symptoms. The following are some health literacy tips adapted from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) to make sure you are staying health literate:

Visiting the Doctor

  • Speak up if you have questions or concerns
  • Make sure that all health professionals involved in your care have important health information about you. Don’t assume that everyone knows everything they need to know.
  • Know that “more” is not always better. Why is a particular medication recommended? How can it help you? Are you better off without it?
  • If you have a test, don’t assume that no news is good news. Ask about the results.
  • Learn about your condition and treatments by asking your doctor and nurse and by using other reliable sources. Is your treatment based on the latest scientific evidence?


  • Make sure your doctors know about everything you are taking (including prescription and over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements such as vitamins and herbs).
  • Make sure your doctor knows about any allergies and adverse reactions you have had to medications
  • When your doctor writes you a prescription, make sure you can read it. If you can’t read it, chances are your pharmacist won’t be able to either.

Ask for information about your medicines in terms you can understand—both when they are prescribed and when you receive them. These questions include:

  • What is the medicine for?
  • How am I supposed to take it, and for how long?
  • What side effects are likely? What do I do if they occur?
  • Is this medicine safe to take with other medicines or dietary supplements I am taking?
  • What food, drink, or activities should I avoid while taking this medication?

When you pick up your medicine from the pharmacy, ask: Is this the medicine that my doctor prescribed? A study by the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences found that 88 percent of medicine errors involved the wrong drug or the wrong dose.

If you have any questions about the directions on your medicine labels, ask. Ask for written information about the side effects your medicine could cause. If you know what might happen, you will be better prepared if it does—or if something unexpected happens instead.


20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors. Patient Fact Sheet. AHRQ Publication No. 00-PO38, February 2000. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. website

Baker DW, Wolf MS, Feinglass J, et al. Health Literacy and Mortality among Elderly Persons. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2007; 167:1503-1509.

Lack of Health Knowledge Associated with Increased Mortality. CancerConsultants.com Oncology Resource Center, 27 July 2007. website

Sullivan, E., Health Literacy. National Network of Libraries of Medicine, 17 July 2007. website

Tanner, L., 2007, What You Don’t Understand Could Kill You. Associated Press, 23 July 23 2007. website