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Health, Science, Environment

Health literacy helps people stay healthy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 3, 2010 - Now that the new health-reform law is beginning to take effect, proponents are turning their attention to boosting health literacy. Their targets are the estimated 90 million Americans, including 1.6 million in Missouri, who have difficulty understanding and making effective use of health information that could improve or save their lives.

These include people who cannot read or fully understand the directions on a medicine bottle, or who don't realize it makes more sense to seek treatment at a community health clinic, when possible, instead of the emergency room; or who fail to follow the doctor's advice about when and how often to take their medications.

Missouri began calling attention to these issues in a big way on Wednesday at a press conference at ConnectCare, 5535 Delmar Avenue. There, Dr. Arthur Culbert, president and CEO of Health Literacy Missouri, was joined by several other leaders in highlighting efforts to make all Missouri residents health literate.

Culbert cited a statement from the American Medical Association saying that health illiteracy more strongly predicts a person's health than age, income, employment, education or race.

"Low health literacy can be a matter of life and death," Culbert said, adding that hundreds of thousands of Missouri adults have only basic or below-basic health literacy.

"That means they are less likely to follow through with prescribed treatment plans and less likely to follow preventive care," Culbert said. "This population is more likely to use emergency rooms, more likely to experience medication and treatment errors and, most importantly, more likely to die earlier. That's part of the staggering cost in human terms."

He added that the financial consequences are equally staggering, noting that one study showed that low health literacy contributed to a loss of billions of dollars to Missouri's economy.

The health literacy movement predates health reforms. Culbert says a national plan to addres the problem has been in the making for more than a decade. The good news, he says, is that Missouri is leading the way. He noted Missouri had set up the nation's first statewide center devoted solely to improving health literacy.

Culbert praised the work of Dr. James Kimmey, president and CEO of the Missouri Foundation for Health, for supporting the development of Health Literacy Missouri. The organization will partner with several other groups, including Missouri State University, the University of Missouri at Columbia and Saint Louis and Washington universities.

In addition to Culbert and Kimmey, the press conference included Dr. Cynthia Baur, the health literacy senior advisor for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Margaret Donnelly, director of Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services; and Rosetta Keeton, manager of community and volunteer services for St. Louis ConnectCare.

The program also included stories from community residents who talked about how health literacy had made a difference in their lives.

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by The Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

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