The Readability of
|Ten percent of hospital admissions are due to the failure of following drug instructions.|
The failure of patients to take their drugs as directed—medication nonadherence—has been a major health problem ior many years. As the Atlantic reported in 2012, 20 to 30 percent of prescriptions are never filled and 50 percent are not taken as prescribed. There is a direct connecton between taking the drug as prescribed and the success of the treatment.
This failure is the cause in the U.S. alone of 120,000 deaths annually, up to 10 percent of hospital admissions, and an additional US$200 billion in medical costs.
The literacy issue
The problem is usually the result of the failure to communicate instructions in language the patient can easily understand.
Countless studies over the last 50 years have indicated that prescription information is most often too difficult for the average reader. According to national literacy surveys, the average adult reader reads at the 9th-grade level. Nearly 20 percent of adult readers read below the 5th-grade level. Studies have shown that low literacy level is directly related to non-adherence.
As we have often pointed out in this newsletter, the reading ability of seniors often weakens with the loss of short-term memory. Illness also makes reading more difficult. Experts advise that medical information for seniors should be written at the 6th-grade level. Although there has been much improvement in readability in the last several years, printed medical information is still too high for most seniors and patients.
An article from the National Institutes of Health says:
"Given the variability in the capacity to comprehend health-related materials among individuals seeking orthopaedic care, stratifying the contents of patient education materials at different levels of complexity will likely improve health literacy and enhance patient-centered communication...
"Even in the era of mass media such as television, radio, and the Internet, written health information serves many important functions. Giving patients and caretakers written information is vital in reinforcing verbal communication. In an attempt to contain healthcare costs, patients and their caregivers are being given more responsibility in their disease management, making the role of patient education including written information even more critical."
Sources of medical information for patients
There are usually four sources of information for patients taking drugs:
- Doctor's verbal instructions.
- The package label.
- The printed package insert.
- Printed and digital supplements.
- Video clips.
- Mobile apps
1. Doctor's verbal instructions.
The best way to improve medication adherence and treatment outcomes is to improve the communication between the doctor and patients. Seniors have special problems. They not only suffer from loss of hearing but also of short-term menory, which hinders their ability to process language.
Over the years, countless articles have urged doctors to improve their skills in communicating with patients:
- Improving health outcomes: http://tinyurl.com/h47xeha
- Patient-doctor communication: http://tinyurl.com/j7gqabc
- Rx for doctor communication skills: http://tinyurl.com/jxkb7hr
- The health-literacy crisis: plwork31.htm
2. Package label
The package label is the chief printed information available to the patient at the point of use. The labels on both over-the-counter and prescription drugs are still too difficult for many readers. Although the format and content of drug labels have been extensively regulated, there has been little improvement in their readability.
In this 2006 study, nearly half (46.3%) were unable to read and correctly state one or more of the label instructions on five common prescriptions. Rates of misunderstanding were higher among patients with marginal and low literacy.
3. Package inserts
Click to enlarge|
A package insert for Nitrostat, a popular remedy for chest pains. The technical and patient information on the same page will discourage many readers.
Printed drug inserts are prepared by the drug makers and are key sources of knowledge about the drugs, but they have many problems.
One study recommends a reassessment of both their design and readability.
The inserts are too difficult for the average reader because:
1. They contain both technical information and instructions for patients. Addressing different audiences on separate pages would be a big improvement.
2. The information is often incomplete and badly organized, failing to prioritze what information is most important.
3. They lack a simple and inviting design with color and graphics that would greatly improve readability.
Inserts would be much more effective if the patient information would prioritize important information and were limited to only what the patient needs to know, namely:
- The name of the drug and its size.
- Purpose and indications for use.
- Dosage and schedule.
- Warnings about effects of misuse and non-adherence.
- Possible side effects and remedies to take. e.g., "contact your doctor."
The size of the page should be large enough to accommodate a readable typeface and a design that emphasizes the most important points to remember.
3. Printed and online leaflets
In the 1970s, in response to the difficulty of the package inserts, nurses began supplementing the package insert by writing simpler instructions on separate pages, often called "medical information leaflets." Private companies soon took over that task. Supplying printed and online leaflets for pharmacists to distribute has become big business.
A 1997 British study on patient-information leaflets states:
- Research to date suggests a considerable gap in the readability of existing health education publications and the reading level of the general population.
- The importance of matching patient education materials with patient reading comprehension levels has been documented in such diverse areas as cancer education and back pain.
- Research findings also reinforce the need to recognise that older adults may have more difficulty understanding health information than others.
- There are gaps in the research studies which highlight the need for the providers of written health-care materials to be more aware of their target audience.
- There is very little research which actually goes beyond the application of readability formulae to materials. There are limitations to this approach. Very few studies involve the participation of those who will use the information, the patients themselves.
This 2015 Brazilian study also recommends that writers go beyond just using a readability score and develop different formats and designs, include illustrations, and test the document on real patients.
Illustrations are especially effective when used in combination with verbal and written instructions, and when used to explain the name, dosage, and timing for new and unfamiliar drugs.
It is always important to pilot test the images to maximize their relevance and clarity, especialy when using them across several cultures.
It should be noted that many states now require pharmacists to have a conversation with customers to determine their level of understanding of the requirements in taking a specific drug.
4. Video clips
"The Fine Print of Cancer," one of a series of patient videos prepared by Johns Hopkins.
Videos demonstrating correct medical procedureshave become very common. Here are two reports on the effectiveness of videos in improving communication with patients:
- Patient consent for ankle-fracture surgery: http://tinyurl.com/h8fjgn3
- Patient video for home use: http://tinyurl.com/hbu5wlh
Such videos can also be posted online for later use. Videos watched by patients in the doctor's office are much more effective if they are followed by a discussion with the doctor or nurse to determine the level of the patient's understanding.
5. Mobile apps
|Some companies such as Push Doctor in UK are offering an iPad app for online consultation with a doctor.|
There are also apps for tablets and smartphones available at drugs.com.
Patients can uee them at home for identifying drugs and listing their uses and interactions.
They would be much more useful if the doctor or nurse could customize them for individual use.
Again, mobile apps are no substitute for a conversation with the health provider to determine the patient's level of understanding.
Plain language in the news
Dr. Fullerton's use of plain language in patient notes: http://tinyurl.com/nnbleqx
SEC Federal plain-language report:http://tinyurl.com/q83gpcs
Judge's surprising plain-language sentencing report: http://tinyurl.com/pmnxhs3
Law for the Common Man: http://tinyurl.com/prcuwm2
Art and skill of readable numismatic writing: http://tinyurl.com/lzs8r88
Resume tips for government job seekers: http://tinyurl.com/kedkasd
Readability scores for science students: http://tinyurl.com/kcsb5jn
Readability of college assessment tests: http://tinyurl.com/nqskdfp
Grading the readability of the Federal Reserve: http://tinyurl.com/q4uwdve
How jargon ruins comunications: http://tinyurl.com/nmub2ux
Health Websites too difficult to read: http://tinyurl.com/ppejhrn
Murky press releases conceal poor results: http://tinyurl.com/n938npr
Readability of American presidents: http://tinyurl.com/nssgrnl
How to write a paper in marine science: http://tinyurl.com/qjzurq4
Singapore requires plain language in investment documents: http://tinyurl.com/ov7edtx
UN climate-change summaries too difficult to read: http://tinyurl.com/j8bemjo
Problems in charity Websites: http://tinyurl.com/z4hhyn5
Improve the readability of your firm's blog: http://tinyurl.com/q6wyudd
Patients leaving hospitals don't understnd care plans: http://tinyurl.com/zst62a8
The difficulty of End User Agreements: http://tinyurl.com/oxbtfey
A plain-language environmental assssment: http://tinyurl.com/jho3yps
Program matches books with students' reading levels: http://tinyurl.com/gpmzqbv
Bad writing hurts your business: http://tinyurl.com/h6pgvly