Literacy and the empowered patient

There was a time when I assumed that virtually all US adults could read reasonably well. After all, the US has a literacy rate of 97%. Then I started building tools for hospitalized patients.

Essentially, a quarter of our country's population is functionally illiterate. Half of Detroit basically can't read. How, then, do we go about empowering this population of patients with information about their health? Even if you avoid the vast sea of jargon and acronyms, understanding health requires some knowledge of basic biology. (I had an interesting discussion with some medical officers at a major commercial insurer on this very topic earlier today.) The solution must involve more time with the patient. But hiring more patient-facing staff is expensive. This is where software comes in. Software that adapts to the patient's unique literacy level and helps the hospital staff know where to target human intervention. We are building it. Here are some of the metrics we seek to improve:

  • Just 22% of patients discharged from the ER understand their diagnosis. (Annals of Emergency Medicine, 2005)
  • Just 37% of patients can state the purpose of their medications at inpatient discharge (Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2005)
  • The average time spent with patients reviewing discharge instructions is just 8 minutes. (Boston University Medical Center, Project RED)