Americans are medically illiterate; are you surprised?

Flu vaccine does not cause flu, but four in 10 of us believe it does

Medical literacy, like simply knowing if the flu vaccine can make you sick, eludes nearly half of Americans. Should we be surprised nearly half of those in the U.S. believe the flu vaccine can make them sick?

I am not.

As an emergency department paramedic I had many opportunities to listen to doctors provide discharge instructions. The patient would usually nod in agreement and have no questions, even when asked. Since I usually had rapport with the patient – I had helped them undress, taken their vital signs, pierced their skin with needles, and helped them on and off the commode – many would ask me, "What did all that mean?"

I struggled to explain in understandable terms and the patients usually declined another chance to talk to the doctor. I always wondered if any patients read the voluminous printout of discharge instructions. Not understanding, let alone the high likelihood of poor compliance, puts patients at risk of complications, inadequate recovery, and return of symptoms.

Injury and illness prevention is, and should be, a high priority for EMS and all healthcare providers. The research finding that correcting misconceptions about flu vaccination is not enough to increase the likelihood of vaccination is troubling. The Ebola hysteria is additional testimony that we focus most on things least likely to kills us, and pay little attention to known dangers.

Influenza will kill nearly 30,000 Americans this year. Many more will miss work or school. Although messaging about the flu vaccination was not effective in changing the rate of vaccination in this study, we should continue to develop and test messages – for flu vaccination and other preventative measures members of our communities should take. We need to continue to find the levers that change more than knowledge. Actual behavior change has to be a measured outcome of health education efforts.

That behavior change begins with us. Influenza vaccination among healthcare workers is consistently low. Are you vaccinated? If knowledge doesn't change your behavior, what will?


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