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Richard H. Carmona, M.D. Headshot

Health Literacy: An Unrecognized Problem in Our Health Care System

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America has long been a pioneer in the medical field. But as we move forward, we must strive to improve a fundamental component of our health care system: health literacy. To do this, it is essential that a clear and consistent dialogue exist between patients and the many entities that make up our nation's health care system. (A point I made recently in the New York Times.)

As a surgeon, I have seen first-hand what can happen when a patient does not properly understand the context of his or her treatment instructions. All medical professionals, from doctors, to nurses, to counselors, and all those in between, have a responsibility to teach patients vital self-care skills and to confirm comprehension of the messages they deliver. When we fail to meet this charge, the core mission of every health care professional -- to properly and successfully treat patients is marginalized or even negated.

This principle must also guide other groups within the health care field, including regulatory agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and academic bodies. Today, messages from these groups become so convoluted that once they reach the intended audience it is unlikely that the patient will acknowledge and decipher the information. This complex messaging offers little incentive to move our health system forward and diminishes the chance to fix our health literacy problems.

Americans are fortunate to have access to some of the best health care in the world, but each time we ignore the opportunity to establish thoughtful, effective communication among all our health-related entities and the people and communities they serve, everyone loses. We must create a flow of dialogue that delivers messages from health entities to individuals and back in a seamless and time-efficient manner. This can be done by breaking down the walls of confusing medical jargon and disregard for the patient's comprehension. Now is the time for us to invest in removing this central challenge and establish health literacy as a permanent fixture in our health care system.

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