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Mortality Rates for Heart Failure Patients Higher if Health Literacy Is Low

Medioimages/Photodisc/Thinkstock(DENVER) -- A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association says lack of knowledge about basic health presents a higher risk of death for heart failure patients.

Nearly one in five heart failure patients have low health literacy, which makes them twice as likely to die from the condition, the study says.

The degree to which a person can obtain, process and understand basic health information and seek services that aid in making necessary health choices is what the Institute of Medicine regards as health literacy.

Heart failure often results in significant lifestyle changes, taking of various medications and sometimes surgery.  If the patient is unable to self-monitor on a consistent basis, managing the condition becomes quite difficult.

"Although patients with heart failure are frequently hospitalized, much care for heart failure is performed on a daily basis by individual patients outside of the hospital," the authors write in JAMA. "This self-care requires integration and application of knowledge and skills.  Therefore, an adequate level of health literacy is likely critical."

Over an eight-year period, researchers followed more than 1,500 heart failure patients for up to a year.  To determine each participant's level of health literacy, they asked three questions:

1.  How often do you have someone help you read hospital materials?
2.  How often do you have problems learning about your medical condition because of difficulty reading hospital materials?
3.  How confident are you filling out forms by yourself?

Low health literacy was apparent in 17.5 percent of the patients, according to the study's results.  Among those with low health literacy, the majority tended to be older adults of lower socioeconomic status.  According to the data, they were also less likely to have completed high school and had higher rates of other illness such as diabetes, stroke or high blood pressure.

Despite the more frequent cases of low health literacy among the elderly, researchers say even young, insured patients with access to health care services experience higher mortality rates when health literacy is low.

Copyright 2011 ABC News radio

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