Literacy, Communications and Star Trek – Cores for Reforming Healthcare

In talking to people about the problems with the US healthcare system, two fundamental truths have become apparent.

First, people really want the type of healthcare that is envisioned in science fiction such as Star Trek, where almost any ailment is treated with a single injection or pill, or a few waves of a healing wand. Unfortunately, medical science hasn’t accomplished that, except in a few instances – antibiotics for a bacterial infection, or perhaps relocating a dislocated finger or shoulder (and those still require weeks to heal and therapy to regain strength and mobility).

And second, the ongoing problem of healthcare literacy and communications may be getting worse as the complexity of medical treatments increases.  Literacy and communications problems impair good healthcare when patients don’t understand what their doctors are telling them, how to take their medicines, or what disease they have.  When this happens  patients have much greater difficulty properly taking care of themselves.  A few examples and data:

  • The American Academy of Family Physicians has a Literacy Toolkit which they promote with the twin facts that only 50% of “patients take medications as directed,” and “nearly 90 million American adults have difficulty understanding and using health information.”
  • A July 9th ABC news story reported about an Annals of Emergency Medicine article showing that 78% of Emergency Room patients had some misunderstanding of their doctor’s instructions, but only 20% realized that they didn’t fully understand the instructions.
  • More patients are misusing medicines in dangerous ways. The actor Heath Ledger’s accidental overdose was the most recent high profile example of this. And CNN reported Monday about an Archives of Internal Medicine study showing that deaths of this type have increased 700% in 20 years.

Star Trek directly addressed communications challenges in a Next Generation episode, (Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra), where the crew of the Enterprise encounters an alien race whose words are understandable, but none of it makes any sense. It turns out that the alien’s language is based upon metaphors, and since the Enterprise’s crew doesn’t understand the context for the metaphors – the mythology and stories behind the metaphors – communications is nearly impossible….. until of course Captain Picard figures it all out in 60 TV minutes.

Unfortunately clinicians and patients aren’t able to resolve communications challenges like TV characters. When clinicians use words and concepts that their patients don’t understand, patients can’t correctly follow their instructions, and end up relying on what they think they heard or understand.

A classic example of this is that many people think taking antibiotics makes them resistant to antibiotics.  While it is true that antibiotic resistance is an issue of concern, it is the bacteria that become resistant to the medicines – not the patients. But patients who believe that they will become resistant may not take the full dosages of their antibiotics, or for as long as the doctor has prescribed – inactions that can actually increase the rate of bacterial resistance and not adequately treat the patient’s infection – bad outcomes for both society and the individual.

This is just one example of how misunderstanding a disease or a treatment can produce adverse consequences. Similar misunderstandings about diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure also lead to inadequate treatments and poor outcomes. For example, many patients believe they can tell when their blood pressure is high – and only then do they take their medicine. But high blood pressure (or hypertension) is called the “silent killer” because people can’t feel high blood pressure – except sometimes when it is dangerously high.

Which brings us back to Star Trek. One of the great things about the one-dose cure is that the patient doesn’t have to understand their disease or remember to take their medicines for the treatment to be effective, so literacy and communications problems are less of an issue for quality of care.

Lessons for Healthcare Reform
The lessons here for health reform are twofold: First, producing one-shot cures will require a lot more research and development – which needs to occur at the same time as we are improving the healthcare delivery system. And second, a fundamental area for improving healthcare delivery is communications and literacy. If patients don’t understand their disease, how to take their medicines, or modify their lifestyle, etc., then that is not their fault – that is the fault of the healthcare delivery system, and we should be able to find ways to fix it because this is not a new problem.

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  1. Pingback: Increasing Competitive Advantage by Improving Member Healthcare Literacy | Intelimedix – To the power of you.

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