More than half of the United States’ elderly population is unable to meet their own health care demands. This includes preventative services, reading prescription bottles, communicating effectively with health care providers, and having positive health outcomes in the face of chronic disease. The failure to meet these needs is related to low health literacy, or the lack of social and cognitive skill sets to understand information provided to them or seek out new services. Low health literacy places an unfortunate health risk on the patient and a financial risk on the health care system. Nursing is obligated as a health care provider to identify patients with limited health literacy and provide unique communication of education. As a profession, nursing should also be empowered to reduce cost to health care and adjust change to nursing curricula to include health literacy concepts.
Health Literacy of the Elderly
Health literacy has varied definitions that are dependent on the organization or discipline for which the discourse is occurring. A collaboration of definitions of health literacy is the ability to employ reading and math skills to function in health related activities, the social and cognitive capacity to obtain and understand the health information as it is provided to them, the ability to seek out medical services, and the sense to maintain good health (Speros, 2005, p. 635). There is not one agreed upon definition of this concept by any one agency or discipline. This serves to affirm what Speros (2005, pp. 633-634) acclaimed to be true: since health literacy is a new concept over the last two decades, the clear definition of it and ownership with subsequent accountability should belong to nursing. This is again confirmed as nursing is held accountable as healthcare providers lacking in proficiently teaching their patients as assessed via The Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (CAHPS) Clinician and Group survey (Weidmer, Brach, & Hays, 2012, p. 3). McCleary-Jones (2012, p. 214) also espouses the goals of Healthy People 2020 in relation to health literacy and that promotion of educational curricula of nursing will help to reach those benchmarks while fulfilling the core values and focus of nursing in general of communication, patient education, and advocacy (Ferguson & Pawlak, 2011, p. 123). Medical schools are already mandated to teach and assess that curriculum for communication skills of new physicians and are beginning to incorporate health literacy practices (Harper, Cook, & Makoul, 2007, p. 113). As a topic that could be intimately defined and uniquely addressed by nursing, it is imperative that nursing education programs rise to the occasion to prepare future generations of nurses identify those at high risk of inadequate health literacy and how to appropriately intervene on their behalf. Background
The US Department of Education performed an assessment of a sample population of 19,000 adults over the age of 16 in 2003 with the goal of understanding better the state of literacy as it pertained to their ability to use the written word to function productively in society (Jones, 2007, p. 951). Approximately half of the sample population was not proficient at a level that would be required to actively participate in health care activities with confidence in health literacy (Jones, 2007, p. 951). The same US Department of Education assessment included a health literacy section specifically separate from the general literacy portion and the findings were consistent; 53% of the sample population had intermediate health literacy (Jones, 2007, p. 953). At the time of the study, this meant that 75 million adults in the United States were unable to participate confidently in their own health care decisions and care as necessary and defined by health literacy (Jones, 2007, p. 953). 59% of the sample population were white, over the age of 65, and had basic or below...
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