COLUMBIA, Mo. - The cost of low health literacy - the difference between patients' abilities to understand health information and providers' abilities to effectively communicate complex medical information - is $106 billion to $238 billion annually, according to Pfizer, a leading biopharmaceutical company. To improve the health literacy of professionals and patients, the University of Missouri will offer a health literacy study emphasis beginning this fall. The MU School of Health Professions will be the first health professional training program in the country to offer a health literacy certificate to health professionals, including physical and occupational therapists, radiological technicians and administrators.
"Health literacy training is important because health professionals and patients need to be aware of the non-medical factors that affect their abilities to care for themselves," said Brick Johnstone, health psychology professor in the School of Health Professions. "Currently, the majority of health literacy training consists of brief workshops and is primarily offered to physicians. This area of emphasis will fill the void by training non-physician health professionals, which is important given there are 120,000 health professionals in Missouri."
The health literacy courses will provide health professionals with more thorough training of issues relating to health literacy and health compliance of patients with chronic illnesses and disabilities. Class topics will include culture and health literacy, religion and health literacy, health policy/ health disparities, behavioral compliance, and bioethics/legal issues. The certificate will be offered this fall through traditional and online classes. An estimated 300 students will be educated during the first two years based on the interest of students in the health sciences program, Johnstone said
"The Institute of Medicine has determined that many deaths are the result of low health literacy - failure in communication between patients and providers," said Herbert Goldberg, professor emeritus and associate dean emeritus in the School of Medicine. "Instructions from health care providers can be unclear or difficult to understand because of patients' educational levels, cultures, spiritual beliefs and other factors. This program will better train health professionals to address these issues."
Individuals with low health literacy have longer hospital stays, increased sickness, are less able to manage chronic diseases and less likely to receive physicals and tests that are important for early detection of diseases. Those most at risk for low health literacy include minorities, individuals ages 65 and older and those with low incomes.
"Many Americans, in general, are overweight, out of shape and have poor health habits," Johnstone said. "There is a need to improve compliance with suggested health treatments. When people go to the doctor and receive medication, that doesn't necessarily mean they will get better. We have to improve individuals' understanding of health issues and empower them to take control of their health. We also need to teach health care professionals about ways they can help people change their behaviors."
The Missouri Foundation for Health will fund the new health literacy emphasis program, with the agreement that the curriculum will be given to other health professional, nursing and mental health programs throughout the state. The program is expected to be self-sustained through student tuition by 2012.