Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Book a Day Keeps the Doctor Away!

By Justine Achille

Not exactly the phrase we’re used to hearing— but reading one book per day might be just what the doctor prescribed for our DC Reads tutees. Living in a society where the majority of adults are functionally illiterate* leads to low expectations for the future generations and unfortunately, it has also been proven to lead to decreased life expectancy. *(Do not possess the reading/comprehension skills necessary to fill out simple forms such as a job application.)

It may seem strange that the ability to read and understand what you are reading can be tied to your health—but it turns out that there is a direct correlation between literacy and wellbeing. Up to a certain degree, the more literate you are, the healthier you will likely be. But why is this so?

 It all comes down to the definition of health literacy. According to HHS Healthy People 2020, health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needs to make appropriate health decisions.” 
To get a better glimpse at what it might be like to be have very low literacy try reading the following passage that was presented to my Health Promotion and Disease Prevention class: 
GNINAELC – Ot erussa hgih ecnamrofrep, yllacidoirep naelc eht epat sdaeh dna natspac revenehw uoy eciton na noitalumucca fo tsud dna nworb-red edixo selcitrap. Esu a nottoc baws denetsiom htiw lyporposi lohocla. Eb erus on lohocla sehcuot eht rebbur strap, sa ti sdnet ot yrd dna yllautneve kcarc eht rebbur. Esu a pmad tholc ro egnops ot naelc eht tenibac. A dlim paos, ekil gnihsawhsid tnegreted, lliw pleh evomer esaerg ro lio.
(The American Medical Association Foundation & American Medical Association considers this a simulation of how someone who is “non-literate in English” would view a printed page)

It’s difficult, isn’t it?—especially if there is the occasional misspelled word. Well what if I asked you some questions about that paragraph—such as: what color should the particles on the tapehead be when you clean it?—would you be able to answer? Did you even know that this paragraph is about cleaning tapeheads? Do you know what that means? Well now imagine you are a third-grader from Ward 8, twenty years in the future. You are at a doctor’s office reading about a procedure you need to get to stop the horrible headaches you’ve been having—but unfortunately, you read at a first-grade level. That consent form you are reading is going to look a lot like the paragraph above, and chances are you won’t understand the majority of it. 
This scenario occurs every day throughout America. Patients who cannot read at their age-level fail to understand information that is critical to their health. This results in missed appointments, incorrect use of medicine, and potentially death.

To give another example of a common problem in health literacy read the following phrase that is often put on brightly colored labels on medicine bottles: 
This sentence was determined to be at a fourth-grade reading level—about the age of our DC Reads tutees. While it was estimated that a little under two-thirds of people at a fourth-grade reading level would be able to understand this label, in reality only a little over one-third of people at a sixth-grade reading level could understand this. **

Clearly, without good literacy we are setting the future generations up for failure—and potentially poor health. Remember that DC Reads is more than a tutoring program; we are an organization that prepares the youth for success in all areas of life—keeping to the cura personalis motto of Georgetown.

Next time you are at a doctor’s office filling out forms, take note of how many times you cannot understand exactly what is being asked of you, and then reflect on what it must be like to try to read that same form at the reading level of a third-grader.

** Information presented here reflects data found by UNC Program on Health Literacy. See for more information.

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