September 11 Events Dramatically Point to Health Literacy Needs of Consumers





Dr. Dorothy Smith



Anthrax and antibiotics including Cipro and doxycycline became common household words after September 11. The unending focus on anthrax by magazines, newspapers, TV shows, and the Internet sometimes generated undue fear -- prompting consumers to make important health decisions based on incomplete information or information they did not understand. Some consumers stockpiled or self-treated with Cipro even though they lacked knowledge about when the antibiotic should be used, how to take it correctly, and the potential risks.

In order for health information provided by the media--as well as by pharmaceutical companies and health professionals — to be useful, it must be presented in a way so that consumers are able to read it, understand it, and be convinced by it to take appropriate action. This was the focus of remarks by Dr. Dorothy Smith, President of Consumer Health Information Corporation, who was a keynote speaker at the Norfleet Executive Forum on Health at the University of Tennessee in Memphis on November 13, 2001.

Addressing the health literacy needs of consumers, Dr. Smith told the audience of health professionals and business leaders that health literacy is a complex and challenging problem. She gave examples of recent articles in the national media on anthrax and showed why many consumers would misinterpret the information because it was not written at a readability level they could understand or the design conveyed messages that were actually opposite to what was intended.

"Have you ever tried to read the fine print in an insurance document or a legal contract and had problems understanding it?" she asked. "This is exactly what health information is like to many consumers. Health professionals are expecting them to manage their medical treatments and prescription medications, but many consumers are being forced to make critical decisions without 'understanding' the information."

Health literacy is a series of sequential stages and the consumer must be able to successfully pass through each one in order to reach the next. For any health information to be successfully carried out by the consumer, the consumer must be able to:

  • Read the information
  • Understand the information
  • Be convinced the information is important
  • Take action
  • See results from the therapy

Only when all the components of content and design are successfully integrated will the health information message meet the needs of consumers, Dr. Smith said.

Consumers will do everything they can to protect their health because they are the ones who have to live with any consequences of a therapy the rest of their lives, she said. They need good information so that they can decide if, when, and how to take a medication or manage a treatment for their disease.

Currently, too many consumers suffer because they do not receive the right kind of health information. Patients make serious medication errors because they are not receiving health information they can understand. Patient mismanagement of prescription drug is one of this country's largest and most expensive disease categories, Dr. Smith said. In fact, it costs the country more to treat the consequences of these unnecessary problems than it does to purchase all the prescription drugs for the entire country. "It doesn't make sense to produce materials that consumers cannot understand," she said.

One positive step recommended by Dr. Smith is for health professionals to be reimbursed for the time it would take them to counsel patients and answer individual questions. Only then can medication errors be cut in half and prescription drug therapy become safer and more effective, she said.

The Norfleet Executive Forum on Health is a semi-annual forum on selected issues related to health care and business. Forum participants include eminent health care professionals, economists, administrators, attorneys, business professionals, government officials, and international experts.

About Consumer Health Information Corporation

Consumer Health Information Corporation was founded by Dorothy L. Smith, Pharm.D, an internationally recognized clinical pharmacist with expertise in patient adherence and patient education. The mission of Consumer Health Information Corporation is to help patients learn how to manage their diseases and prescribed treatments safely and wisely. The company has developed more than 4000 evidence-based patient education programs for medications, medical devices, disease management and Phase III clinical trials worldwide.  A respected clinical and educational source, Consumer Health Information Corporation has won major national and international awards for excellence in patient and consumer education programs that have significantly increased patient adherence. Dr. Smith is the author of more than 130 professional articles, 23 books and has delivered more than 150 professional and scholarly addresses.

Copyright 2012 Consumer Health Information Corporation. All rights reserved.

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Consumer Health Information Corporation  

Experts in Patient Education and Adherence Since 1983
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