Study: Diabetes Patients Who Don’t Understand Basic Health Information Significantly Less Likely To Adhere To Prescribed Treatment

Something new today to add to the list of health problems associated with low literacy: in a recent study conducted by the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research and the University of Washington School of Medicine, a big majority (72%) of the 1,366 study participants turned out to have limited health literacy and significantly poorer adherence to newly prescribed antidepressants compared to other patients.

According to Kaiser Permanente, depression occurs twice as frequently among adults with diabetes compared to adults without diabetes.

Although poor adherence to antidepressant medications has been a known issue with some diabetes patients, what’s new here is the evidence that diabetes patients with limited health literacy were much less likely to refill their antidepressant medications in a timely fashion than patients without such limitations.

Dr. Amy Bauer of the University of Washington School of Medicine, notes that “patients with limited health literacy may require more intensive counseling and clearer explanations about use of antidepressant medications and closer follow-up.” Considering the high number of participants in this study who were found to have low health literacy, I suspect that most doctors should, in fact, be prepared to deal with this issue.

But as a matter of public policy, we could also address this by working on improving the literacy skills of adults in this country to begin with, which would lessen the need for such interventions. Does anyone think it’s likely our health care system can really support the cost of more intensive counseling and closer followup what is likely millions of patients with low literacy/health literacy?

This study isn’t the first report to draw a connection between literacy/health literacy and public health (see link above). Shouldn’t improving adult literacy in the U.S. be a major component of our overall strategy to improve public health and lower health care costs in this country?