Most Adults Need Help with Health Instructions


The National Center for Education Statistics found that most adults need help to understand information about their health and medicines. This has nothing to do with a person's ability to read or write. In fact, people who don't understand health information are often highly intelligent and skilled in other areas that might be difficult for medical people to understand. It's just that health information is often explained and written in a way that is different from how non-medical people talk and think.

Many people who thought they knew how to take or give medicines safely later found out that they had misunderstood the directions. For instance, many young mothers who volunteered to participate in a test could not accurately state their child's correct dose after reading the label for Tylenol (acetaminophen) drops or liquid. People who take Coumadin (warfarin) to prevent blood clots have also misunderstood the directions for taking their medicine, especially since the dose may be changed. One man continued to take a 5 mg tablet each day, even though his doctor had lowered his dose to 2.5 mg daily. After taking a new prescription for the lower dose to the pharmacy, the man mistakenly thought each tablet now contained 2.5 mg of Coumadin. He did not notice that the bottle had 5 mg tablets in it, and the directions said to take a 1/2 tablet each day. He was later hospitalized to prevent serious bleeding. In another case, a woman told us that she made a mistake with a new medicine because she was unable to listen carefully and write things down at the same time.

Misunderstandings can occur with all people, not just the elderly or uneducated. The American Medical Association reports that:

  • Almost half of the people with chronic illnesses do not understand their diseases and medicines
  • Only half of all people take their medicines correctly
  • Misunderstandings about health and medicines have increased US health costs by $73 billion. People want and need simple and clear directions when it comes to taking care of their health

    Understanding your health information is important to maintain your safety. If you feel you do not undertand something, never guess or assume. It is always best to contact your pharmacist or healthcare provider for clarification.

    Created on November 1, 2006

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