Byron Pitts Discusses Low Literacy and Health Through His Account


Byron Pitts, Chief National Correspondent for the CBS Evening News, discusses the burden of illiteracy on the healthcare system.

Having the courage to “Step Out on Nothing” was the main focus of CBS chief national correspondent Byron Pitts’ new book, which he discussed in detail as the keynote address today, June 18, at Pri-Med NY 2010.

Pitts, who has traveled to 37 countries through CBS, has been witness to war in Afghanistan, covered the Indonesia tsunami, hurricane Katrina, September 11, and has witnessed killing first hand, said he’s no stranger to death and tough issues.

Like medical professionals, who often deal with death and illness on a daily basis, Pitts says he’s familiar with the subject and has come to understand the complexities involved.

However, what he does not understand is indifference, he said, and urged the audience to recognize and call into question the existence of indifference when treating patients. Health professionals should try their best not to become numb, but should try to show kindness, understanding and a sense of determination to explore all possibilities.

Byron said he has seen the kindness of physicians, who have given their own time, traveling to places like Haiti to provide aid to those who truly need it.

“It is that goodness in all of us that I hope to appeal to this morning,” he said.

In his new book Step Out on Nothing, Pitts provides a biographical account of how he learned to read at age 12 and overcome a stutter by his junior year of college. In it, he stresses that it was his mother’s faith and desire to overcome the indifference shown at the school level and medical level that helped him achieve his dreams.

Pitts grew up in Baltimore. He was one of three children, being raised by his single-parent mother, who worked as a seamstress making trench coats. When he turned 12, his mother, realizing he was struggling in school, brought him to a medical facility to be evaluated by professionals. The doctors reported back that Pitts was mentally retarded and needed to be institutionalized. His mother, unsatisfied by the answer, asked the doctors to run the tests again, but they came back with the same results.

In school, Pitts told the audience he was placed in the basement with the other struggling kids, who didn’t truly receive the treatment they needed. The indifference to his condition was present at various levels, he said, but it was his mother who had the courage to demand more and allow for Pitts to receive the help he needed to one day become the successful, fully literate professional he is today.

His mother is now a fourth-stage cancer patient, who Pitts frequently visits. What often makes his mom smile is a visit from her doctor after a radiation treatment. All it takes is a, “Good morning Mrs. Pitss, How are you doing today?”

“Kindness can make a big difference,” he said, and it is something physicians should remember when treating their patients.

Delving further into the issues is also essential, especially when it comes to illiteracy. It is estimated that 30 million adults cannot read in the US, he said,

“Literacy should matter to all of us,” he said.

The cost of low literacy levels on the health field should be especially of interest, he said. More than $100 billion a year is spent inadvertently as a result of low literacy levels in the field of health, he said.

Sometimes, healthcare professionals may refer to patients that do not follow directions or fail to adhere to prescription drug regimens as “difficult” or “non-compliant” but it is important to stop and think about whether or not they may have literacy issues that are affecting their adherence, he said.

Pitts offered some tips in identifying such patients:

  1. Patients that neglect to take medications
  2. Patients that complain the handwriting on directions is hard to read or too small
  3. Patients that might spend a lot of time with staff asking for directions, but never writing anything down, or accepting written notes
  4. Patients that bring friends or family members

These are all signs that there might be an underlying literacy problem, he said. If a physician should suspect an issue, it is important to try and pull the patient side quietly and ask, because the patient may be embarrassed to admit the problem.

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