What if half of acutely ill patients with heart failure were not able to comprehend, remember, correctly follow, or follow through on the myriad directions, lessons, instructions, guidelines, admonishments, or suggestions contained in our meticulously designed patient education and discharge planning efforts? What if 50% of trauma victims were discharged to their homes pretty much clueless regarding how to heal, recuperate, and rehabilitate themselves; administer necessary medications and treatments; change their dressings; recognize and manage complications; and avoid or minimize problems? Reports recently released by the Institute of Medicine11 and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality22 suggest that this scenario may already exist for nearly half of the adult population in the United States—some 90 million people—with low health literacy.

The term health literacy refers to the ability to read, understand, and act on...

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