NEOUCOM breaks down barriers

Priscilla Tasker

Researchers at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine are seeking new ways to bridge the gap between physicians and under-served patients by creating awareness of low health literacy rates.

Health literacy refers to a person’s ability to understand, process and act on health information.

Regardless of age, race, education or income, nearly one out of three people lack appropriate health literacy skills, according to the Partnership for Clear Health Communication, a national coalition that promotes awareness and solutions for the low health literacy issue and its effects.

“Many factors affect health literacy; reading level is only one of them,” said Susan Labuda Schrop, associate director for administration at NEOUCOM’s Department of Family Medicine.

The important thing for doctors to recognize is that medicine is all new to many patients, Schrop said. It is the physician’s responsibility to ensure patient understanding, but part of that responsibility also rests on the patient to ensure his or her own health, she said.

The latest National Assessment of Adult Literacy reported that 93 million people have limited reading skills.

“Generally people with low literacy do a good job of hiding it,” Schrop said, “Creating a shame-free environment where patients may ask questions is important because we don’t want to embarrass the patient.”

Oftentimes doctors talk in medical terms that most patients don’t understand, she said. They are afraid of looking dumb, so they don’t ask what the word means, Schrop said.

Misunderstanding can have dire consequences, said Brian Pendleton, sociology researcher at NEOUCOM and professor at University of Akron. Pendleton recalled an incident when a well-educated woman had undergone abdominal surgery and was told not to ambulate for a couple of days. Ambulate, simply put, means to walk. The woman thought the word referred to bowel movements so she didn’t release any refuse for a couple of days. She complained to the nurse of pain in her stomach, and doctors found that her colon nearly ruptured, Pendleton said.

“Everyone has the right to ask questions,” Schrop said.

We try to look at how to empower patients who feel powerless in the doctor’s presence and tell them they must ask questions for their own good, Schrop said.

Rachel Horner, senior hospitality management major, has no problems asking her doctor questions, she said.

“That’s what the doctor’s there for,” she said.

She also said she has no problem understanding her doctor, adding “he’s pretty straight forward.”

Dan Feldman, junior communications studies major, said he is also comfortable with asking questions and has a good understanding of what the doctor tells him. Recently concerned about a sore neck, he made an appointment where he was prescribed a muscle-relaxer to ease the tension. The doctor talked to him in normal terms, he said, and he understood the proper way to take the drug.

Contact health trends reporter Priscilla D. Tasker at [email protected].