I’ve written several posts about healthcare innovation and the evolution of technology in modern medicine and, while I support these advancements, there is a particular aspect of patient care that has yet to benefit from significant progress: patient health literacy.

For those that may not be familiar with the term, patient health literacy is the ability of a patient to actively comprehend health information and service offerings in an effort to make informed healthcare decisions. It includes obtaining accurate, relevant information and subsequently processing it in a reasonable and intellectual manner.

As the healthcare environment evolves and care migrates to a team-based approach, it is vital that patients understand the options presented to them. But, as is the case with change-based situations, there are a number of roadblocks.

Availability of Information

The digital space has exponentially expanded patient access to health information. A simple search term is enough to open up an infinite array of websites offering reams of content that may or may not be accurate. Patients are forming their opinions and nurturing biases based on massive amounts of potentially irrelevant content. From there, the path for a health-illiterate patient can go one of two ways:

  1. The patient seeks medical attention for treatment of an unconfirmed ailment, or
  2. The patient self-diagnoses and assumes symptoms or characteristics that support their newfound belief.

Neither option is ideal and both include a set of risks that can be avoided by a one-on-one conversation with an educated medical professional. And yet, sometimes this isn’t enough to combat patient health illiteracy.

Ignorance, Fear, and Reverence

Some patient-physician interactions are more directive than consultative— a quality that was accepted in the past but has quickly become suboptimal as the healthcare field has transitioned to a more team-based collaborative environment. Most medical professionals today want their patients to have an opinion about their care plan if for no other reason than it opens the door to honest conversations regarding the risks of treatment and alternatives.

When a patient agrees with everything a provider communicates without participating in the conversation, it should raise red flags. The patient may not be aware that they are encouraged to have a voice in their care. They may be afraid to speak up for fear of sounding unintelligent or uneducated. They may place providers on a proverbial pedestal, expecting their words to be absolute and final. Regardless of their reasoning, a quiet patient agreeing with every word and not demonstrating a basic understanding of the subject at hand could be a sign of health illiteracy.

Addressing The Issue

A National Assessment of Adult Literacy conducted in 2003 found that only 12% of U.S. adults exhibited a level of health literacy that was proficient. In fact, 21% of participants exhibited only basic comprehension and 14% scored below a basic level of understanding. These findings indicate that patient health illiteracy in the United States continues to be problematic and, as telehealth and patient portals become more prevalent, it is imperative that advancements in this area keep pace with the rest of healthcare’s progress.