Low health literacy is putting patients at risk, an industry group is warning executives in the medical and pharmaceutical industries.

“Many Americans have low health literacy, or difficulty understanding medical speak, a problem affecting more than one-third of patients in the U.S. health care system. Those with literacy issues come from all walks of life; however, educational level, nativity, socio-economic status, and elderly age are all associated with lower levels of health literacy,” reports The Joint Commission.

“Effective communication is a cornerstone of patient safety,” says Dennis S. O’Leary, M.D., president, The Joint Commission. “If patients lack basic understanding of their conditions and the whats and whys of the treatments prescribed, therapeutic goals can never be realized, and patients may instead be placed in harm’s way.”

Cultural, language, and communication barriers often lead to misunderstandings between patients and their caregivers, which may cause harm to these patients.

The Joint Commission offers the following tips, among others:
  • Make effective communication a priority between caregivers and patients
  • Address patients’ communication needs across the spectrum of care
  • Develop patient-friendly navigational aids in health care facilities


“Breakdowns in communication between patients and caregivers can significantly impair the ability of physicians to diagnose and treat medical problems,” says Ronald M. Davis, M.D., chair of The Joint Commission Expert Roundtable on Health Literacy and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Henry Ford Health System, Detroit.

“Everyone who has a role in health care — specifically including practitioners, employers, and regulators — must work together to pursue strategies for improving communications with patients that will result in safer, more effective care,” Davis said.