Today, many families are struggling not only with the cost of and access to health care, but also with the quality of care they receive. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Taking Medical Jargon Out of Doctor Visits”, articulates an incredibly important issue that sometimes gets swept under the rug in the talk about cost and quality of care: patient health literacy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about nine out of 10 adults find it hard to follow routine medical advice, mostly because they don’t understand what their care providers are saying. The complex instructions and jargon that doctors use make patients more likely to skip necessary medical tests or not take their medication as prescribed. This confusion leads to poorer health outcomes and increased health care costs currently estimated at $238 billion a year.

There is a common assumption that lack of health literacy is limited to racial and ethnic minority populations. While these populations are disproportionately affected by low health literacy, according to a report from the National Patient Safety Foundation, Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy, the majority of people with low health literacy skills are white. Older people, recent immigrants and those with chronic conditions are likely to have low health literacy, as well.

Of particular note from the WSJ article is the federal strategy around health literacy entitled the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. The plan seeks to engage organizations, professionals, policymakers, communities, individuals, and families in a linked, multi-sector effort to improve health literacy

We are headed in the right direction. However, there is still a fundamental need for greater change in the health care system – particularly in the areas of how care is delivered and paid for – if we are truly to achieve better access to quality, affordable care.

As our population grows older and larger, the impact on the health outcomes of patients and the costs to the health care system will only increase. These problems are compounded by the lack of care coordination for those with multiple chronic illnesses. People with multiple chronic diseases have increased interaction with the health care system, leading to more opportunities for confusion surrounding their medical care – which is in turn influenced by the number of doctors they see and what they hear from their doctors.

An older person with five or more chronic conditions (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, arthritis, obesity), has an average of 37 doctor visits, 14 different doctors, and 50 separate prescriptions each year. How incredibly confusing would it be for that person to manage his or her own health? Older adults and their caregivers should be full partners in their care, and they should be provided with the information and support to manage their conditions so they can make informed health care decisions.

With the advent of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the Campaign for Better Care, led by the National Partnership for Women and Families, Community Catalyst and the National Health Law Program, is working to ensure the needs of older adults and their families are highlighted and addressed.

Helping patients and providers communicate effectively with each other will be a crucial component to the quality of care that patients receive. The Campaign’s national consumer coalition has developed a “Yardstick” for Better Care, which identifies key elements of patient-centered practice for inclusion in new models of care

The Campaign for Better Care hosted a public event today in Washington, D.C. – the “Building Better Care” forum – and the forum webcast will be available online Friday. Special guests included Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, award-winning author Gail Sheehy, UCLA Geriatrics Division Chief David Reuben, journalist and activist Jonathan Rauch, HHS Director of Delivery System Reform Peter Lee, and more.

To learn more about these issues and how the Campaign is tackling them please visit

— Jenelle Holder Williams, Field Director, Integrated Care Advocacy Project