The Dangers of Science Illiteracy

Posted on October 30, 2011


If you don't understand something about the plan for your care, ask your doctor.

October is health literacy month, and I would be remiss not to take a moment to give this issue the attention it deserves.

In his book The Demon-Haunted World:  Science as a Candle in the Dark, astronomer Carl Sagan wrote:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

This phrase also applies to health care & medicine – also now highly dependent on science & technology.  We expect these luxuries to be there for us when we are in need, but don’t seem to take much interest in them otherwise.  To me, it has always been one of the most peculiar things that anyone could just simply not be interested in even an elementary understanding of how their body works.  I consider it to be one of the greatest privileges of what I do.

A recent review in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested that those who have trouble reading & understanding health information also have poorer health outcomes.  Low health literacy was consistently associated with a greater number of hospitalizations and greater use of emergency care.

Those with low health literacy also report lower rates of mammography screening and influenza vaccination, as well as poorer ability to demonstrate taking prescription medications appropriately.  But perhaps most importantly, low health literacy was associated with a poorer ability to interpret labels and health messages.

But even for those with an adequate understanding of health jargon, navigating the health care system can be confusing, and it’s not always clear what the next step should be when that doctor’s appointment is over.  That’s where bringing a companion to the doctor’s office can really come in handy.

To adequately address these problems, institutional and societal-level changes must be implemented.  Until then, the best advice I can give is to be proactive about your own health literacy and that of those around you.  It’s also imperative for those of us in the position to do so to help our patients & clients understand and navigate the evolving health care system we operate in (you may find the resources provided by the NNLM of use).

As a primer, watch this video & listen to Richard Feynman speak about the beauty of understanding the world around us beyond just the superficial – I hope it inspires some of you to make a change, even if it’s just keeping better records of your tests, procedures, and medications.

Posted in: Health, Medicine