This is the first post in our Health Equality blog series that will explore health literacy and health disparities in the U.S.

Learning to read is complex because it is an acquired function, unlike speaking and listening that have been naturally hard-wired into the human brain for 100,000 of years. The brain must be taught to decipher printed text, and one overlooked connection can lead to a complete misunderstanding. For example, learning English requires a person to understand the relationship between 44 spoken sounds, 26 alphabet letters, and over 150 spelling patterns.

Unfortunately, our healthcare journey is tied directly to reading instructions. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that 1 in 5 people in the U.S. go home to a family that speaks a language other than English. These people run a 22% greater chance of having a medical mishap every time when given instructions on paper.

The health industry also has huge challenges with a glaring mismatch between the dense, technical and jargon-heavy instructions and a patient’s ability to understand them. Health information is relayed at a 10th grade reading level that results in 14% health illiteracy level among adults, meaning they do not have the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information to make appropriate health decisions. The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that nearly 50% of the US population cannot use instructions on a prescription drug label to determine the time to take that medication.

Improving health in America requires us to address and improve health literacy. Instead of relying solely on written instructions that are sent home with patients, health providers should look for solutions to supplement written prescriptions with verbal instructions that can be recorded and replayed by the patient.

With the popularity of voice assistants and voice searches, communicating verbally is positioned to transform healthcare. With an aging population, verbal instructions remove obstacles for people with vision problems. It also opens the opportunity for patients to listen in a language that they understand.

Building an inclusive healthcare community begins by empowering patients and providing them all the tools to clearly understand their health, especially treatment protocols and their medications. Verbal health instructions are important to add assurance that all communication avenues are covered. Because we begin hearing in the womb and can recognize our mother’s voice even before we are born, listening is one of our five previous natural senses and is integral to our connection to the world around us.

Part 2 of the Health Equality blog series will focus on the Cost of Low Health Literacy.

(Featured Image Photo by Jonas Mohamadi from Pexels)