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  • October is National Health Literacy Month

    For more than a decade, Osborne drafted health education material, but when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and her doctor gave her a printout that was supposed to help her understand her condition, she said she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. “I had no idea what I just read,” said Osborne, who worked with a variety of medical centers and organizations, including the National Institutes of Health. “I could not even absorb it. I was totally floored.” Osborne, 62, of Natick, Mass., reached out to her colleague at the National Cancer Institute to vent her frustration. She told her friend that she didn’t understand why the printout recommended that she see numerous specialists, including a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist. “Who exactly are these folks anyway?” she recalled asking her colleague. “Well, Helen,” she recalled her colleague say, “You wrote a whole booklet about this topic already.”

    Although Helen is highly educated and considered extremely literate, she is one of many Americans who, regardless of their education level, at times struggle to understand health information. Nearly half of American adults, including doctors themselves, have poor health literacy, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine. Many struggle to understand instructions on prescription drug bottles, doctors’ notes, health insurance forms, and educational brochures. And many studies suggest that understanding health information could mean the difference between life and death.

    In a recent study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, it was found that surveyed heart failure patients who had low health literacy were more likely to die outside of a hospital setting than those who were considered health literate. As a result, Helen worked with local and national government agencies to distinguish October as National Health Literacy Month. The theme for Health Literacy Month 2014 is “Be a Health Literacy Hero.” It’s about taking action and finding ways to improve health communication. Health Literacy Heroes are individuals, teams, or organizations who not only identify health literacy problems but also act to solve them. You can help by recognizing and cheering on those you consider as health Literacy Heroes. For more information, visit

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