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'Health Literacy' Called Key for Heart Failure Patients

TUESDAY, April 26 -- Heart failure patients with low levels of "health literacy" are at increased risk of hospitalization and death, a new study finds.

Health literacy refers to the ability to acquire, process and understand basic health information and services required to make appropriate health decisions, according to the Institute of Medicine. Because chronic heart failure involves a large amount of self-management, patients need an adequate level of health literacy, explained the authors of the report published in the April 27 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In their study of nearly 1,500 heart failure patients, Dr. Pamela N. Peterson, of the Denver Health Medical Center, and colleagues found that 17.5 percent had low health literacy. These patients tended to be older, poorer, less educated and more likely to have other illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic pulmonary disease and stroke.

During a median follow-up of 1.2 years, 124 study participants died. That included nearly 18 percent of patients with low health literacy and 6 percent of patients with adequate health literacy, the researchers found.

In addition, during the follow-up period, nearly 31 percent of patients with low health literacy were hospitalized compared to about 23 percent of patients with adequate health literacy.

Routine assessment of health literacy may help identify heart failure patients at increased risk for hospitalization and death, the researchers suggested.

"This study demonstrates that even among those with health insurance and access to health information, low health literacy as assessed by three brief screening questions is associated with higher mortality. This finding supports efforts to determine whether interventions to screen for and address low health literacy can improve important health outcomes in patients with heart failure," Peterson and colleagues concluded.

More information

The U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has more about heart failure.

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Posted: April 2011