Health literacy: A primer for pharmacists

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PurposeThe literature surrounding health literacy and its importance in everyday practice are reviewed.SummaryHealth literacy includes a patient's reading, writing, and numeracy skills, as well as his or her cultural experiences, understanding of health concepts and pathophysiology, and basic communication skills. Over one third of the American population lack the skills necessary to understand health information, make health care decisions, or follow medication instructions. Independent risk factors for low health literacy include poor socioeconomic status, ethnicity, older age, and limited education. Mounting evidence suggests that low health literacy leads to poor health outcomes, increased mortality, increases in health care costs, and poorly self-managed chronic diseases. Communication with a pharmacist to gain clarification of medication instructions is often the last opportunity to ensure that patients understand how to use their medications appropriately. Low health literacy is not always easily recognized, as patients use well-practiced coping mechanisms or avoidant behaviors. Clear communication strategies help patients become more involved in their care plans and increase positive interactions. Tools to assess health literacy have been developed and can be used by pharmacists to guide education and counseling. Advanced methods of written and oral communication should be used to improve patient comprehension and understanding.ConclusionTools such as simple word-recognition tests or comprehensive tests of functional health literacy can be used in daily practice to assess patients' health literacy. Being familiar with communication techniques such as the Indian Health Service, teach back, and Ask Me 3 can help facilitate individualized medication-related education and maximize patient comprehension.

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