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Interpreting What The Doc Says

A new report finds that billions of dollars in health-care costs could be saved if people better understood the medical information passed on to them by their physicians. The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay has advice on how to improve your health literacy.

The National Institute of Medicine, which conducted this study, defines health literacy as the ability to understand medical terms and directions. And it's a huge problem. The study found that about half of all Americans (90 million people) have low health literacy.

People with a low health literacy may have problems following instructions on drug labels, interpreting hospital consent forms, and understanding their diagnosis.

This study cites some very interesting examples. For instance, a mother of a child with an ear infection poured an oral antibiotic into her 2-year-old's ear because the prescription label didn't say to swallow the liquid.

Now, not having good health literacy can cause serious problems and waste money. If you're not taking your medicine the right way, you are not going to get better or perhaps you may even get sicker, costing you and your health insurance company more money.

What this study found is that problems can happen to anyone no matter what their educational level is or their social strata. The main reason: People don't want to come off as unintelligent to their doctors, so they don't ask the right questions.

Here are some tips on how you can improve your health literacy:

Do Your Homework
If you are being treated for an ongoing condition such as diabetes, you will be doing yourself a big favor by finding out as much as you can about it. This way, when the doctor uses medical terminology, you can understand what he or she is saying.

Ask For Instructions In Writing
When you are given a prescription, the doctor will tell you when and how much to take of the drug. But you need to ask for the instructions in writing so you are sure that you're doing exactly what the doctor says. Many people have other things on their minds when they are visiting with the doctor and may not remember exactly what was told to them. But if you get everything in writing, then you are bypassing this problem.

Ask Questions
Many patients, for fear of seeming unintelligent, will just nod their head to whatever the doctor says, even though they may not understand. You are only hurting yourself. If the doctor is using lingo you don't understand, ask for a clear explanation. Many doctors tend to speak in medical terms, which most people can't even begin to understand, and remember there is nothing wrong with this. If you didn't go to medical school, you are in no way expected to understand complicated medical issues.

Bring In A Nurse
Nurses are very good at interpreting doctors' instructions and putting them into plain English. So if you've asked your doctor to explain something and you still don't understand it completely, bring in the nurse, who can break down the instructions in an easy-to-understand way.

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