Literacy levels boost chances of recovery from illness


Patients with poor reading and writing skills likely to spend more time in hospital and take longer to regain good health, writes ALISON HEALY

DIFFICULTY IN reading and writing can make the difference between recovering from an illness and dying, according to US literacy expert Dr Timothy Shanahan.

Dr Shanahan, who was appointed by former US president George Bush to advise on literacy, pointed to research which found that US veterans who had poor literacy were likely to spend more time in hospital and recover from illness more slowly than veterans with good reading and writing skills.

If the patients could read quite well, they could carry out the doctors' orders and find out about getting the necessary medical care, he told a meeting in Ballymun, Dublin.

If they couldn't read but had somebody who could help them they would also recover, but if they were socially isolated and low in literacy, then they were more likely to die.

He said poor literacy could also have a serious impact on the emotional well-being of teenagers.

Dr Shanahan was speaking during Language, Literacy and Learning Week, which was organised by Young Ballymun. The project works to improve the health, education and wellbeing of children and young people.

His findings tally with research by the European Patients' Forum which found that people who were health literate used 33 per cent fewer health services than those who were not.

Studies have found that people with low levels of literacy have higher levels of hospital admittance through emergency departments, are admitted more frequently to hospital and use an inefficient mix of services.

Irish researchers are now taking part in a Europe-wide survey to determine health literacy levels.

Dr Shanahan told a group of teachers and policymakers that the best way to increase literacy in Ireland was to increase the amount of instruction in school.

"If kids are getting 90 minutes now, if you take it up to two hours, there's pay off. If they're getting nine months of education now and you take it to 10, there's a pay off," he said.

As director of reading for Chicago's public schools, he ordered that pupils spend two to three hours a day on literacy and language.

Martina Gannon, literacy co-ordinator with Young Ballymun's Write Minded service, said it was unlikely that this much time was spent on literacy in Irish schools.

She said it should be mandated that a certain amount of time is spent on literacy every day. "We don't have a national literacy strategy or policy."

Ms Gannon said teachers also needed sustained support as they moved from teaching different age groups and different types of schools.

Young Ballymun moves its focus to mental wellbeing this week with a series of activities organised by its Jigsaw project to mark World Mental Health Week. Events include a mental health bingo night hosted by the Samaritans.