Bill aims to improve health literacy

The AMA supports the legislation, designed to help the 90 million adults with limited comprehension of essential health information.

By Dave Hansen — Posted Jan. 21, 2008

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Patients who mistake the meaning of basic medical terms often fail to obtain proper care until health issues mushroom into huge problems. It's such a major issue that the U.S. Senate may take action this year to tackle it.

Last month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the National Health Literacy Act of 2007. The bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Norm Coleman (R, Minn.), plans to recruit more Democratic and Republican co-sponsors in the Senate with the hope of holding a vote on the measure in 2008, according to his press office.

The legislation would establish a health literacy implementation center to gather and disperse information and to devise national improvement strategies. The center, which would be based at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in the Dept. of Health and Human Services, would develop curricula for elementary and secondary schools, colleges and adult education programs to boost health literacy skills.

About 90 million American adults have some difficulty understanding and acting on complex health and medical information, according to a 2004 Institute of Medicine report.

American Medical Association Trustee Peter W. Carmel, MD -- who applauded the bill -- noted that it is "intended to ensure that all Americans have basic health literacy skills to function effectively as patients and health care consumers."

Poor health literacy is a common problem, said New York University School of Medicine's interim director of pediatrics, Benard Dreyer, MD, who also serves as co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Health Literacy Project Advisory Committee. Parents giving the wrong amount of medication to children is a typical example, he said. Parents may not know what a teaspoon is or may use kitchen spoons.

The legislation calls for an annual public meeting. It also would set aside $10 million annually for fiscal years 2008-2012 to establish and fund state-based health literacy centers.

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