Low literacy levels increase risk of medication misuse, expert warns

More than four in 10 Australians are unable to read well enough to gain a proper understanding of the correct use of their medications.

That’s the view of Council for Adult Literacy president Jo Medlin, who was speaking at the 2022 National Medicines Symposium. She said: “People who have difficulties reading are not able to access the same information as those who can. This can impact people’s health if they are not able to take medicines properly, or understand what they need to do to stay well.”

Ms Medlin, an advocate for adults with literacy and numeracy gaps, was delivering the keynote address at the symposium, which was themed ‘The ABC of health literacy’.

Under the five levels of literacy that form part of the Australian Core Skills Framework, more than four out of 10 adults have a literacy level of two or lower, which means they are not able to read many everyday texts.

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More than eight out of 10 adults in Australia have a literacy level of three or lower, and will have difficulty understanding medical terms and more complex medicine instructions.

“Just think of all of the things you have read since you got up this morning,” Ms Medlin said. “People who have difficulties reading are not able to access the same information as those who can. This can impact people’s health if they are not able to take medicines properly, or understand what they need to do to stay well.”

Ms Medlin outlined two ways in which the issue could be tackled. The first of those was improving workplace literacy. Doing so could lead to fewer errors and misunderstandings, which is particularly important when talking about health.

Providing several examples of text we see in everyday life, Ms Medlin also gave tips on how to make these simpler and easier to understand. Using plain language, better layout and more images can help, she said.

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Many users of medications will know that the literature provided with them can seem verbose and daunting. Many come on an insert which, when unfolded, can be the size of an A4 page or larger.

In many cases, this is required because items such as side-effects must be listed. Many are rare-side effects but must be included for the purposes of full disclosure and safety.

With a better layout, though, along with more images, those with lower levels of literacy may feel less overwhelmed and more likely to take in the basic instructions.

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Ms Medlin stressed the importance of not stigmatising those with low literacy levels: “Low literacy can have many causes. It is important to remember that it is not the person’s fault. It could be due to schooling gaps, an undetected physical issue like seeing or hearing difficulties, or behavioural issues.

“The stigma around difficulties reading,” she continued, “mean that it is hard for people to seek help, just making the problem worse and long lasting. This is why it is so important how we talk about low literacy. We shouldn’t talk about a person being illiterate or innumerate. We should say they have unmet literacy needs or have literacy or numeracy gaps.”

The symposium was hosted by NPS MedicineWise, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to improve the use of medicines and other health technologies to optimise health outcomes for Australians.

The conference included real life examples of those who have struggled with reading medication instructions.

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