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Understanding Doctors' Instructions

Too many patients don't understand what their doctors tell them — a real problem for people taking medication, or recovering from injuries, surgery, or illnesses, says The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay.

The inability of many patients to follow doctors' instructions and understand the basics of the care they're getting — a lack of "health literacy" — may threaten their health, she cautions.

According to the Institute of Medicine, a group of experts that advises the government on important medical questions, 90 million American adults have trouble absorbing and acting on health information. That's roughly half the adult population.

Successful medical treatment often depends on patients giving accurate medical histories, following detailed instructions, and understanding what they need to do once they leave the doctor's office, Senay explains. When patients can't do that, research suggests that diseases are managed less successfully, and patients tend to report poorer health.

A medication may be less effective if the doses aren't spaced out correctly, Senay continues. For instance, taking twice as much as you should at one time can increase the risk of adverse side effects. Drugs taken in ways other than the doctor wants may not do the job the physician intended, and that, in turn, can prolong or even aggravate the condition the prescription is supposed to treat.

To help improve patient-doctor understanding and communication, Senay suggests, patients should prepare questions when going to the doctor, and make a list of medications they're taking, so the doctor can review it.

That preparation is especially important for patients who aren't sure that they understand what the doctor is telling them. It also can be a very good idea for a friend or relative to accompany the patient, to ask questions the patient might forget, and also to take good notes that the patient or a caregiver can refer to.

Doctors can sometimes help patients with their health literacy, Dr. Senay adds, and medical schools and organizations such as the Institute of Medicine are actively telling doctors that skills they need to develop include ways to communicate.

The American Medical Association is urging member physicians to use less medical jargon and more plain English. Physicians are also being urged to ask more questions, so they have a better idea what kinds of instructions their patients can or can't handle.

Those things can help, though experts suggest the real solution to the lack of health literacy involves comprehensive efforts to educate people whose basic health knowledge is lacking.