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Health Literacy Low for Black Men

By on June 21, 2013

Black and other minority men are still finding it too challenging to understand key health information and terms for life threatening illnesses. Specifically, physicians are finding that too many urban men don’t understand basic terms having to do with the prostate, according to a new survey. Obviously this makes it difficult for them to decide on treatment options for related cancers. And given that African-American men are both more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer and to die from prostate cancer than white men, understanding health terms can literally be lifesaving!

“The risk to benefit ratio of prostate cancer screening and treatment depend a lot on patient preferences, so it is critical that patients can understand the tradeoffs that are involved,” said Dr. Stacey Loeb, a urologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.

“This is particularly true for high-risk groups such as African Americans, who are known to be at greater risk for aggressive prostate cancer,” Loeb, who was not involved in the study.

If you recall, another key study this year said educational materials and websites doctors direct patients to are still too difficult for many patients to understand. That is a major problem, especially for black males.

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death for men in the U.S., killing about 30,000 men each year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s not always aggressive, however, meaning that men may be subjected to surgery or radiation, and side effects, without necessarily extending their lives.

Researchers distributed “pop quiz” surveys on common terms related to urinary, bowel and sexual functions at two clinics for low-income patients.

Of 109 men, 95 percent did not understand what the prostate does, according to results published in the journal Cancer. The numbers were better but still low for terms like “incontinence,” “urinary function” and “bowel habits.”

Many of the men read at a 9th-grade level.

“As our results indicate, most physicians likely overestimate patient understanding of these terms,” coauthor Dr. Ashesh Jani told Reuters Health by email.Prostate cancer can be confusing even for men with high literacy, said Jani, a radiation oncologist treating prostate cancers at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. These results are “exactly what I would expect,” according to Dr. Mack Roach, chair of radiation oncology at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.

“”However, it is important to note that most of the men in this study did not have prostate cancer,” she said. “Many people without any previous knowledge about a medical problem will read up on it if they are diagnosed.”

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