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Center for Health Literacy Promotion Blog

Poor reporting on health literacy blames the victim, misses the point

On May 15, the TimesRecordNews of Wichita Falls, TX posted this headline: US pays billions, and lives, for poor health literacy. This morning it showed up on the Google Health Literacy Alert. 

The story features the following as an example of how low literacy in a medical setting (which the writer incorrectly equates to health literacy) is costing us taxpayers:

A 5-month-old child asphyxiated when a cap from a pre-filled syringe was ejected into his throat during the administration of medicine. The father had taken his son to an emergency room and was sent home with instructions to give his son medication through a new syringe every few hours. The young father assumed the cap to be part of the syringe, and it looked attached to the medicine vial. While placing the medication into the child’s mouth, the cap came off and lodged in the baby’s airway. The baby was rushed to the hospital but died. Was he a bad parent? No, it was a tragic mistake, the result of low health literacy.

The father and his literacy is not the problem here.

As the writer points out, proper use of the syringe was not demonstrated. This father demonstrated health literacy by recognizing an emergency and appropriately bringing his child for treatment.

The providers failed him and his son  by not ensuring safe use of the prescribed treatment. The author omits the fact that federal, state, and local laws, regulations and accreditation criteria require healthcare providers to provide full explanation of recommended treatments and related risks in a language that patients and families can understand.  The responsibility is the providers’. 

The suggestion that if this father just had better literacy he would know how to use a syringe, his child would not have died and he would not have consumed extra services, we taxpayers would not have wasted our healthcare dollars on them is unfounded, unsubstantiated, damaging to an already devastated family and a disservice to all parents.

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