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The Answer Blog

A National Health Literacy Test

I recently learned of a study that found that $300 to $400 million dollars could be saved each year if terminally ill patients stayed in their homes rather than in hospitals during their last weeks.

The saving of $300 to $400 million dollars a year grabbed me, because I have an idea that would save untold millions of dollars in health care costs and make us a healthier nation if we, as educators, got behind it. It is to require that all high school students take and pass a nationally standardized health and sexuality education achievement test in order to graduate.

Such a requirement would elevate the health and sexuality education field, and take it off the perimeter of education policy and practice, where it currently resides. It would give sexual health the same level of importance as other subjects that require standardized tests, such as reading, math, science and writing.

Knowledge is the keystone for more responsible behavior. Yet, while we impart knowledge on a vast array of subjects in health and sexuality education courses, we really don’t know how knowledgeable students are compared to ones in other states. Could young people become better, less expensive health care consumers if they took a standardized test on such topics as lifelong exercise, cancer screening, sexually transmitted disease prevention, the merits of contraception, breast vs. bottle feeding, the importance of health insurance, alcohol and drugs and prenatal care?

I’m just scratching the surface of topics included in middle- and high-school courses. Yet when students finish these courses, we have no idea what knowledge they have retained. This knowledge could make a real difference in how they lead their lives and in how our health care dollars are eventually spent.

I know there are many reasons educators oppose the idea of a national health literacy test for students. Many believe that students are already over tested and that the curriculum has become nothing but a series of tests on every subject. But I would not endorse this idea if I didn’t think it embodies prevention and cost savings for us as a nation.

Of course, I don’t think the idea stands a chance of going forward, unless a prominent university like Harvard would require passing such a test for admission. If it did, public schools would scramble to improve their health and sexuality education programs.

What do you think of the idea? Please leave a comment to let us know. You can also check out this recent op-ed on the topic: “Educating a Knowledgeable Health Care Consumer,” by Herbert Pardes, M.D., president and CEO of New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

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