Health Literacy, Reimagined.

Terry Williams
18, December

40% of Americans don’t understand medicinal instructions, costing $200 billion dollars annually.

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A sixty-five-year-old woman with a history of heart disease is admitted to the hospital with an apparent heart attack. Her husband brought her medications — ACE inhibitors, betablockers, digoxin, and diuretics. The vials were full and the drugs had long since reached their expiration date. The physician asked the woman’s husband about his wife’s obvious noncompliance with her doctor’s orders, he said, “she never understood what the doctor or the pharmacist said about the purpose of the medicine; she was too ashamed to admit it.”

A doctor examined a new patient — a twenty-five-year-old, overweight woman with Type 1 diabetes. He found that her recent A1C score had surged from the previous year; she’d gained ten pounds and had circulation problems in her legs. When asked why she hadn’t been more careful about her illness, she said,

“Nobody ever said I had to eat right and exercise. I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

A fifty-five-year-old with a family and personal history of prostate cancer obtained a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test number that had doubled in the past six months. He had no idea what to make of the results, but knew it wasn’t good. In a panic, he called his family doctor and urologist. Both were busy seeing patients and would get back to him when they had time. The man developed panic attacks thinking he was dying. He ended up in the emergency room.

When we hear the word “literacy” we normally think of the ability to read and write. But health literacy, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fact sheet, is the degree to which individuals have the ability to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make necessary health decisions

The folks described in the above vignettes fail to meet the criteria for health literacy. As a result, they may have difficulty navigating the healthcare system, sharing personal information with providers, engaging in self-care, and understanding concepts such as risk and probability — potential consequences of poor health literacy listed by the HHS fact sheet.


According to the US Department of Health and Human Services health literacy affects people of all ages, races and incomes, but the impact of limited health literacy disproportionately affects lower socioeconomic and minority groups.

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Why is it important for a person to be able to find, know and use health information to make the best choice for her wellbeing? Aside from ethical issues or simply doing the right thing on behalf of those with whom we share the planet, promoting health literacy saves money. Hudson indicates that in the United States, low health literacy is estimated to cost $105 billion to $238 billion each year in direct health care costs.

Viewing it another way, achieving health literacy would cut health care costs through:

  • fewer emergency department visits
  • fewer hospital readmissions
  • more screenings to prevent illness and increase medicine adherence
  • fewer dosing errors.

Augmented reality (AR), where digital content in the form of 3D images, sound and text is superimposed over the world we observe, can equip the healthcare provider do what is necessary to reduce health literacy problems.

Dr. Prem, a web-based magazine lists the following applications of AR in this pursuit:

  • Making complex processes easier. For example, Facebook’s Oculus Rift Glasses enables surgeons to virtually navigate through 3D models of CT scans
  • Reducing unpleasant experiences. For example, AccuVein, the AR app illuminates the area from where blood is drawn, so medical assistants find the right vein in a single prick.
  • Helping patients understand the symptoms better. For example, AR apps can help in presenting the actual impact of specific symptoms on a patient’s health.
  • Educating patients. For example, 3D models can help to explain the action of drugs on the body, alerting them to follow the right medication protocol.
  • Better record management and timely patient care. For example, required patient information can be accessed quickly with less chances of error.
  • Enabling better interactive medical training. For example, with AR, medical students can obtain, a clearer, 3D understanding of human anatomy.
  • Creating improved consultation platform by sharing patient’s perspective. For example, telephone counselors in Australia better helped mothers learning how to breastfeed, after using an AR app to view the situation from the mother’s perspective.
  • Helping in early detection of specific ailments. For example, abnormal skin lesions and moles in high-risk individuals can be monitored regularly with an AR app.
  • Pharmacy benefit management. For example, the medicine calendar, cautions about misusing a medication and required fitness and diet tips can be provided via an AR app.
  • Tele-mentoring. For example, with an AR app a budding surgeon can access real-time guidance and mentoring from the best mentors irrespective of their geographical location.

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According to the US Department of Health and Human Services health literacy is critical to the success of each interaction between a health care professional and patient — every prescription, every treatment and every recovery. As health care shifts to more of a consumer-driven, value-based model, consumers will be the primary decisionmaker about the healthcare they receive. Augmented reality can play a pivotal role in empowering them to make those decisions.

ARSOME Health, a Connecticut-based technology company that developed ARx, a web platform with augmented reality tools to empower patients to learn and correctly comply with test results and prescribed medication. Some of the features of ARx include, Warnings, Contraindications and Side Effects; Schedule and Reminders; Prescription Compliance Information; and Personalized Information for Test Results. )