September 5, 2012

What You Don't Know Can Hurt – Even Kill You

Is it possible for a health care system to redesign its services to better educate patients to deal with their immediate health issues and also become more savvy consumers of medicine in the long run?” This is an important question and even larger dilemma for the medical profession to solve. I would also state that the patients need to pay attention as this poses a question for patients - “How do patients make good choices?”

Two different articles from different perspectives are very interrelated and important for both sides in the near future. Even being aware of one side before I wrote this blog on the August 23, the blog posted by Nancy Finn on September 3 really brought the topics together for me. Both the medical profession and the patients have a challenge before them and solutions are not easy to come by. This also brings another question into play - “Can both sides work together to solve this?”

I will say that for many, this will be possible on both sides, but I wonder how we will bring those on both sides that will oppose this very rigorously into the desired state of learning. Many physicians are of the opinion that patients should listen only to them, the doctors, and follow their directions explicitly. On the patient side, there are many that will have no desire to learn and will insist on following the doctor without learning anything about the reasons or the medicine behind the condition.

The importance of health literacy is more important today than in the past for several reasons. People that are literate become more adept at understanding health information, tend to make more informed healthcare choices, become better able to manage their chronic conditions, and in general have significantly better outcomes than patients that remain health illiterate. Patients that remain healthcare illiterate have higher rates of medication errors, more emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and increased likelihood of dying.

A number of health policy organizations recognize that health literacy is important to individuals, and benefits society because helping patients help themselves is an important pathway to keeping down health care costs. Successful self-management reduces disease complications and can cut down on unnecessary emergency room visits and eliminate other wasteful spending.

Organizations that promote proper health literacy tend to do certain things very well. The ten (only nine are listed) attributes in the report include items such as:
1. Making improving health literacy a priority at every level of the organization;
2. Measuring health literacy and using those measurements to guide their practices;
3. Taking into account the particular needs of the populations they serve;
4. Avoiding stigmatizing people who lack health literacy;
5. Providing easy access to health information and assistance navigating services;
6. Distributing easy-to-understand information across print, audiovisual, and social media channels;
7. Taking health literacy into account when discussing medicines or in other high-risk situations by using proven educational techniques, such as the teach-back method;
8. Training the healthcare workforce in health communication techniques; and
9. Letting patients know what their insurance policies cover and what they are themselves responsible for paying.

When you consider what is on the plate for patients, the medical decisions have changed from leaving the choice of treatment entirely in the hands of your doctor to the patient now needing to be informed and choose between treatment choices. These decisions are often life altering, and it is now up you or your families to choose which way to treat your medical issues. This change has occurred because for many conditions:
(1) There are no clear-cut parameters with proven success;
(2) The medical experts differ regarding the best way; and
(3) Although there is an abundance of information about medical issues, that information is often difficult to comprehend.

Nancy Finn accurately explains many of the decisions we as patients may need to make and the task does look daunting to say the least. What may seem simplistic on the surface, can be very complicated when it is your life on the line. Healthcare literacy is important and if you have great doctors that are willing to take the time to educate you, the decisions will be difficult, but you will have a solid base on which to make the decision.

This is why becoming an e-patient may be a goal you need to set for yourself. Even then with all the diseases and types of illnesses, this is a formidable task. This is just one more reason that e-patients form groups that can mentor others.

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