updated 9/6/2006 7:29:45 PM ET 2006-09-06T23:29:45

Most adults can determine at what age their children should get vaccinated or discern from a label when to take their medicine, but they still need help understanding many basic health instructions, a new study shows.

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The report by the National Center for Educational Statistics found that most adults have an intermediate health literacy, but intermediate is far from good, because so many health instructions are written in a way that’s foreign to how people talk and think, said Dr. Rima Rudd of the Harvard School of Public Health.

“Intermediate skills means that a majority of U.S. adults will have some difficulty using health-related materials with accuracy and consistency,” Rudd said.

The series of tests had a total of 500 points for a perfect score. Women averaged 248 points. Men averaged 242 points. The study showed that few people — less than one in six — are proficient when it comes to health literacy.

Many health directions are written at a level that’s above the average consumer, Rudd said. A simple example, she said, would be a can of baked beans at the local supermarket. A consumer may want to know the salt content before buying, but they don’t see the word salt anywhere on the label.

“Of course, they wrote ’sodium,’ but that’s a technical term, that’s a chemistry term,” she said. “You don’t sit at the family table and say pass the sodium please.”

Low health literacy means more ER visits
The government attempts to measure comprehension of basic medical instructions because low health literacy can lead to higher costs and poor health outcomes. If officials can make it easier for patients to understand how to maintain their health, patients may get more frequent screenings or checkups, and perhaps they won’t have to resort to emergency rooms to get care.

The data analyzed comes from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, and it allows researchers to examine the relationship between demographic characteristics and literacy. Besides comparing gender, officials also reviewed the race, age and educational levels of the 19,000 people who took the test.

Harder for older people
The analysis showed that adults older than 65 had lower health literacy rates than younger age groups.

Also, whites and Asian adults had higher literacy rates than blacks, Hispanics and American Indians. Hispanic adults had lower average health literacy than adults in any other racial group.

The message from the study for consumers is that literacy skills are not what they should be. The message for insurers, drug manufacturers and doctors is that they need to work on their communication skills if they want to help consumers understand information, Rudd said.

“They’re writing things at a level in the health field that is very difficult for the general public to work with,” Rudd said.

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