The concept of health literacy is a recent addition to healthcare literature, appearing in the early to mid 1990s. Health literacy refers to individuals' ability to understand their healthcare issues and effectively care for themselves in the healthcare system. Individuals' health literacy abilities vary greatly and can be viewed on a continuum ranging from adequate to marginal to inadequate. Repeated research has demonstrated that older individuals, the geriatric patient population, are at risk of inadequate or marginal health literacy. This risk impacts health outcomes and cost for caring for the older people in our society who are the consumers of a large quantity of healthcare services.
The demographic data from the research show that multiple factors influence an individual's health literacy. Besides age, individuals with less education, lower income, “blue collar” jobs, and poor health status (mental and physical) can be at risk of marginal or inadequate health literacy. Providing care to low health literacy patients is complicated by commercially prepared healthcare materials and presentations that are often written well above the average national literacy level. Studies in this review examine various approaches to healthcare education and provide viable options for educating those with low health literacy. This review stresses the importance of healthcare professionals identifying older individuals with marginal or inadequate health literacy and being able to provide education in an effective manner to this segment of the population.
Carolyn Crane Cutilli, MSN, RN, ONC, CRRN, Clinical Nurse Specialist, Acute Rehabilitation Unit, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.