Health Literacy:Understanding Medicare, Medicaid, your doctor and other healthcare professionals who work with the elderly, seniors

Nearly half of all American adults have difficulty understanding and using health information provided to them by doctors, specialists, pharmacists and insurance companies. Low health literacy can often lead to harmful and even deadly mistakes. 


The term “health literacy” refers to a patient’s ability to obtain, process and understand health care communications ranging from test results to prescription instructions. The complex text that is common in health information can often be very difficult to understand.


Seniors who have a working understanding of health information have the ability to understand the writing on prescription bottles and appointment slips, and understand information provided to them by their medical team.


In contrast, patients with low functional health literacy often:


o       Do not understand the written or oral information provided to them by a doctor, nurse, pharmacist or insurer

o       Can not navigate the health system in order to obtain necessary services

o       Acquire higher health care costs

o       Receive health care services through publicly financed programs


According to the National Academy on an Aging Society low health literacy impacts both the cost of health care as well as the physical costs for seniors in our community. Billions of dollars are spent every year for unnecessary doctor visits and hospital stays because of low health literacy among seniors.


“Our caregivers have also found that many of our clients are endangering themselves by not understanding the treatment plan prescribed by physicians,” said Clark Bongaardt of the Springfield and Wayne Comfort Keepers, a provider of in-home services for seniors. 


“We train our caregivers to be health literate and to promote stronger health literacy among all of our clients.  We help put our clients’ worries at ease by coordinating their care with other healthcare professionals.”


According to a 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences, adults age 65 and older had lower average health literacy scores than adults in younger age groups and are considered a very vulnerable population.


“We see many clients that are faced with the difficult task of making multiple treatment decisions,” added Clark Bongaardt.  “They receive treatment options from different physicians often including their family practitioner and several specialists. Evaluating that information for credibility, comparing advice, interpreting test results and analyzing all of the possible risks is very overwhelming for a person who is struggling to understand it all.”


There are many ways for families to help.  If you know of a senior or have a loved one dealing with medical issues, offer to attend doctors’ appointments with them.  Be sure that they understand their treatment plan and encourage them to keep notes at their appointments and to log questions for the next appointment. 


You can also help them understand their prescriptions and create an easy system that ensures they take medication at the right times.  These few steps will go a long way to helping the seniors you know and love stay safe from the risks of confusion.


About Comfort Keepers

Founded in 1998 by a registered home health care nurse and her husband, the Comfort Keepers franchise system has grown to over 550 offices worldwide. Comfort Keepers has ranked as one of the top three franchises in senior care Entrepreneur Magazine’s Franchise 500 for the past four years. For more information about Comfort Keepers, visit Each office is independently owned and operated.

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