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Apr 28, 2011

The Importance of Health Literacy in Heart Failure Patients

Lower understanding of medical information increases mortality risk in heart failure patients.

Patients can have varying levels of health literacy, ranging from what’s often referred to as “low” to “adequate” health literacy. Those with adequate health literacy are more equipped to read, process and understand medical information in relation to their own health, whereas those with low health literacy may struggle with one or all of these skills. Unfortunately, research shows that having lower health literacy can have a serious impact on the health of patients – particularly in those with heart failure.

Many Americans currently have low health literacy, and the elderly, minority populations, and lower-income populations are at highest risk. A recent study showed that low health literacy can be especially dangerous in patients with serious long-term conditions, such as heart failure, that require frequent monitoring and care, particularly at home.

This study conducted at Kaiser Permanente Colorado involved nearly 1,500 participants with heart failure that were surveyed for health literacy, based on 3 simple questions regarding their ability to read and understand medical information from healthcare providers. Of participants, 17.5% had low health literacy based on these surveys. Those with low health literacy were typically older, had less education, lower income, and more coexisting illnesses than those with adequate health literacy, and experienced increased mortality rates during the study.

Based on findings, health literacy can have a considerable impact on the health of patients with heart failure. Heart failure patients with low health literacy are at significantly higher risk for death, which is likely attributed to their inability to fully understand and appropriately manage their condition, requiring extensive at-home care. Therefore, the health literacy of heart failure patients must be addressed as a way to improve outcomes. Patients that fully understand what heart failure is and how it can be treated are much better-equipped to successfully manage this condition over time, improving quality of life and life expectancy. 

Questions for You to Consider

  • How is health literacy assessed?

  • Health literacy is the ability to understand and use healthcare information to make decisions and follow treatment instructions. Health literacy can be assessed by asking patients certain questions about their ability to read and understand hospital materials, and how confident they are in filling forms out during doctor appointments.

  • How can patients improve their health literacy?

  • Patients can help to improve their health literacy by improving upon their general reading skills. As health information can still seem confusing at times, patients should be sure to ask their healthcare providers for help when necessary, such as asking them to use more plain language in explaining conditions or asking for a medical interpreter if their primary language is not English.


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