Cost of low health literacy in U.S. estimated to be between $106 billion and $236 billion

STORRS, Conn. Americans’ “health literacy” costs the economy between $106 billion to $236 billion annually, a new report released Friday by the University of Connecticut stated.

The new report, which was supported by a research grant from Pfizer, discusses the importance of health literacy, the level to which people have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information.

The results of the study imply that persons with basic health literacy would have trouble, even when using information from a clearly written, accurate pamphlet. Those considered to have below basic health literacy would not be able to recognize a medical appointment on a hospital appointment form, nor would they be able to determine from a clearly written pamphlet containing basic information how often a person might have a specified medical test.

“Our findings suggest that low health literacy exacts enormous costs on both the health system and society, and that current expenditures could be far better directed through a commitment to improving health literacy,” said John Vernon, Department of Finance at the University of Connecticut, and lead author of the report.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), 36% of the adult U.S. population—approximately 87 million people—have only “basic” or “below basic” health literacy levels.

The report findings underscore two basic types of health policy interventions. The first is elimination of gaps in health insurance coverage, while the second focuses on specific actions to improve the ways in which health insurers and healthcare providers relate to and interact with patients.

“An individual’s health literacy skills have a profound impact on his or her ability to manage a chronic illness, such as diabetes or high blood pressure,” said Barbara DeBuono, executive director of Public Health and Government at Pfizer. “If an individual understands and can act upon medical instructions, unnecessary emergency department visits and hospitalizations can be reduced, which, in turn, lowers overall healthcare costs.”

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