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Practices face ‘patient literacy challenge’

19 August 2011

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Practices face a growing challenge to ensure proper care is provided to patients with poor literacy skills, a medicolegal firm is advising.

With literacy levels being a significant barrier to achieving and maintaining patients’ good health, the MDDUS is advising its members to ensure patients fully understand prescription instructions and advice given.

One in six people in the UK have a literacy level below that expected of an 11 year-old.

The figures are likely to be even more alarming with regards to health literacy, which is an individual’s ability to read, understand and use healthcare information to make decisions and follow instructions for treatment.

“From a health perspective, the first major issue is detection of literacy difficulties when dealing with a patient,” said MDDUS medical adviser Barry Parker.

“Adults who struggle to read are often too embarrassed to disclose this, even in the confidential setting of a doctor’s consulting room. It’s also possible they have developed strategies to compensate for their difficulties, so they may not be immediately apparent.”

MDDUS urges vigilance over this issue, particularly if patients appear to have difficulty completing forms in surgery or have unexpected problems following written advice.

Medical information in written form, such as leaflets or posters, risks further difficulties, says Dr Parker.

“Where leaflets are used, they should be presented in the simplest format possible to assist those with literacy difficulties. It’s important to steer clear of medical jargon, keep key messages simple and avoid information overload,” he said.

“There is a significant safety issue if the patient is asked to rely only on written information they cannot read or interpret. Where possible, instructions on how to take medication and potential side effects should be given verbally and supplemented with written material.”

Your comments (terms and conditions apply):

“Over one third of our indigeonous patients do not read – this is a very deprived area. It not only makes getting health messages over very diffficult, it engenders a lot of anger on their part – born of frustration and in some cases shame I imagine. We actually have a lot of posters up in the surgery about adult literacy courses but are the patients able to read them I do not know. We work on the KISS princicipal – Keep It Simple Stupid” – Name and address withheld