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Numeracy and Health - A Tyranny of Numbers

            Ellen Peters defines numeracy as "an element of health literacy that refers to the ability to understand numbers" (Peters et al. 2007). When making decisions, people must frequently take into account numerical information, but not all individuals have the ability to understand and use numbers. Less numerate individuals comprehend less numerical information. Ellen Peters began her talk by asking the audience a question: Why might numeracy be important to health? Her years of research and experience in the field prove that numbers instruct, inform, and give meaning to information about health plans, medications, and treatments. Her research has also proven that not all people can comprehend and use numbers effectively. Although those who are more educated tend to be more numerate, this is not always the case. Even the highly educated are capable of being innumerate. The focus of Ellen Peters talk was to address three issues: What research suggests about numeracy skills levels in the U.S., what kinds of numeracy skills are needed to select a health plan, choose treatments, and understand medication instructions, and how providers can better communicate with those with lower numeracy skills. .
             What does research show us about numeracy skills levels in the U.S.? The Numeracy scale is used to measure numeracy skill levels. To paint a picture of how numeracy is evaluated, Peters referenced an experiment conducted by Lipkus et al., 2001 in which participants were asked to select the number they thought represented the biggest risk of getting a disease. If person A's chances of getting a disease is 1 in 100 In 10 years, and person B's risk is double that of A's, what is B's risk? The correct answer is 2 in 100 in 10 years. Those with high levels of numeracy know to double the numerator, which is 1; however those with lower numeracy often manipulated the denominator, changing either 10 or 100 years.

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