Low health literacy can have great personal costs when the wrong dose of medicine is taken or when scheduled tests aren't done at the correct time. It's the financial cost, however, that is draining the healthcare system.
According to research led by John Vernon, professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the cost of low health literacy to the U.S. is between $106 billion and $238 billion each year. That cost alone would be enough to provide health insurance to each of the 47 million persons who lacked coverage in the United States in 2006.
"Low health literacy levels in Missouri are exerting a significant financial burden on state tax payers," said Vernon. "Moderate investments in improving health literacy among Missourians could go a long way towards eliminating excess and unnecessary health care expenditures."
Missouri bears its fair burden in the cost of low health literacy to the tune of approximately $5.2 billion annually.
In southwest Missouri this works out to $265 million per year. That would be enough to fund the next five years of Missouri Department of Transportation highway and bridge construction projects in southwest Missouri with $80 million left over.
These wasted billions of dollars could be one reason why in a 2007 Commonwealth Fund state scorecard on how health systems perform, Missouri ranked 37th out of the 50 states
"In Barry County, it's been estimated in the Vernon report that the cost of low health literacy is $32.1 million per year," said Kathleen King,
administrator of the Barry County Health Department. "Here most of our time is spent conducting nutrition assessments and nutrition counseling. Understanding how nutrition affects overall health is one key to improving
health for our residents."
With all this money at stake in southwest Missouri and the nation, changes in healthcare policy could help solve the challenges to the state economy and to patient outcomes.
In the report, Vernon suggests two changes. The first would be to create fairness in health insurance coverage. Average people who need healthcare or medicines go without because of a lack of health insurance to help pay the costs.
The second change involves improving how health insurance companies and healthcare providers deal with patients. This could involve more research, better patient education and provider training. When patients understand their healthcare, it can reduce mistakes and confusion regarding benefits, preventive care and treatments, as well as foster better communication with their provider.
For more information about the economic costs of low health literacy, view Vernon's full report at: http://www.mffh.org/vernon.pdf.