Consumers overwhelmed in sea of health information

While health information is more widely available than ever, most consumers are unable to understand it well enough to make appropriate decisions, according to a new editorial by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers. While education levels are a barrier for many individuals, the authors add that even the most well-informed patients may not adequately process what they hear from a provider when receiving an unexpected or frightening diagnosis.

The editorial appeared online August 6, 2015 in JAMA.

Howard Koh and Rima Rudd write that limitations to health literacy “are clearly hazardous to health. Research has firmly linked limited health literacy to a cascade of suboptimal health outcomes, including worse overall health status and increased early mortality rates in elderly persons.”

Koh, who is Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership, and Rudd, senior lecturer on health literacy, education, and policy, call for health care providers to be proactive in ensuring that patients understand instructions, and for institutions to encourage a culture in which patients feel comfortable asking questions. Improvement also is needed in health-related information provided to the public, such as disaster management instructions and descriptions of health insurance plans.

The Arc of Health Literacy (JAMA)