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Medical illiteracy can be fatal

July 30, 2007|From Times wire reports

A study of patients 65 and older found that those who couldn't understand basic written medical instructions were much more likely to die within six years than those who had no problems grasping the information.

The difference in the death rates remained substantial even when researchers considered differences in the patients' health at the outset.

Inability to understand medical information and instructions makes it hard to manage such chronic illnesses as asthma, diabetes and heart disease, said lead author Dr. David Baker, chief of general internal medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. That in turn can lead to declining health, frequent hospitalizations and ultimately death, he said.

One-fourth of the 3,260 patients in the study were considered medically illiterate. That was based on tests of their ability to read common medical information, including prescription labels, appointment slips and instructions on how to prepare for an X-ray.

Almost 40% of those deemed medically illiterate died during the study, compared with 19% of those who were literate. Factoring in health at the outset and other variables, medically illiterate patients were 50% more likely to die than the others.

The results appear in the July 23 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

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