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5 Ways Adult Illiteracy Affects Health

What if you could reduce America’s healthcare spending by hundreds of billions of dollars, all without dealing with insurance, government health sponsorship, or lobbyists? The answer isn’t magic. It’s literacy. According to PBS, 36 million American adults are functionally illiterate, and this leads to $232 billion per year in healthcare related costs, mostly due to a misunderstanding of health information. Here’s why that happens, and how you can help

1. Misunderstanding of medication instructions.

The last time you picked up a prescription, did you notice how much documentation you got with it? Not only were the instructions clearly outlined on the bottle, but you probably also got an instruction sheet reiterating them. You probably even wondered why you needed all that paperwork for one prescription. It’s simple enough. Three times a day with food, don’t mix with antihistamines. What more do you need to know?

Now imagine all those instructions were in Chinese. Or cyrillic Russian. Or ancient Persian. You’d probably feel a bit nervous to take the meds. 一日三餐,无抗组胺药. It says the same thing, but you can’t read it. So you might forget a part of the instructions. Or which pill is which. Since it is assumed that their patients can read, pharmacies rely on the written word. This illiteracy can lead to incorrect medication dosage and other pharmaceutical complications.

2. Many illiterate adults don’t have anyone to read instructions for them.

No, you couldn’t always read, either, but when you were a child, any medication you had to take was given to you by your parents. They could also stay up to date on other health hazards, like viruses going around (hello, 2020). Many illiterate Americans don’t understand English at all, so even video media might leave them confused about proper health procedures. Even more than they confuse the rest of us.

3. Warning signs in the workplace only warn the literate.

Manual labor jobs can be dangerous. They’re also more accessible to illiterate adults than office jobs. Unfortunately, safety equipment from fire extinguishers to PPE often requires its users to read. Warning signs around the jobsite might be simple and clear to the common reader, but the illiterate cannot decode them. This poses serious risks and leads to dangerous and costly accidents in many warehouses, workshops, factories, and construction zones

4. Information about infectious diseases is scarce.

We’ve had no shortage of information about Covid-19 this year. What percentage of your personal Covid policy has come from articles you’ve read? When you can read, you tend to undervalue the volume of information you get from reading. The average American can spend more than three hours on social media every day, and much of that time is devoted to reading posts. The Pew Research Center found that 62% of American adults get their news from social media. If you can’t read, you’re left out of that loop.

5. Illiteracy makes taking care of others more difficult.

Remember a few points ago when we mentioned parents giving their kids medication? Illiterate adults can have a very difficult time with this. Searching for help online can also be a challenge if you can’t use a keyboard. This can lead to expensive ER visits or letting minor problems get worse. According to the UN, ⅔ of illiterate people worldwide are women and girls, often tasked with caring for their families while men are away at work. While this is a worldwide statistic, it also applies to some parts of America, especially among immigrant communities

Illiteracy isn’t just about struggling in school or missing out on the Harry Potter books. It can lead to serious health issues. At Reading to New Heights, we’re working to end adult illiteracy in the Dallas area. And if you’re reading this, you can help. Please consider donating to help cover our operational costs and expand our program. You can also volunteer your time as a reading instructor. To learn more, check out our website, or give us a call at 214-915-8544.

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