Can digital health technology improve health literacy?

A recent article in the AMA News cites a 2003 health literacy study by the U.S. Department of Education that surveyed more than 19,000 Americans. It found that more than one-third had trouble reading and understanding basic medical information.

Not surprisingly, people with low health literacy have worse medical outcomes, make more medication errors, have lower adherence to regimens and are 50 percent more likely to be hospitalized (National Patient Safety Council). The worst part is that 75 percent of health-illiterate patients will not tell their physicians about it.

The biggest issues I see with health literacy are that patients are intimidated to discuss their low health literacy with a provider and to challenge care recommendations (which is not usually in a shared decision context), and physicians do not speak in lay terms and do not have enough time for ample, free-flowing discussions. In addition, low health literacy is not appreciated by providers and, therefore, the problem is a self-fulfilling one.

Among the tips in the article to improve health literacy are recommendations to have people – not machines – make appointments, have patients make a list of medications, and prepare and write questions for the provider in advance of an appointment. I found it interesting and embarrassing that there was no mention of technologies in recommendations put forward by the authors.

Technology can improve health literacy. Information may be transmitted either in auditory or written mode, and educational materials about disease management, medications, instructions for caregivers and appointments may be presented in native languages, with illustrations. The patient portal then becomes the common communication tool, which may contain prescribable links from the provider for the patient to view. Patients without PCs at home may watch in the provider’s office, log in at the library or a smart phone.

This type of technology has an ROI that’s hard to demonstrate on a commercial level, but is clearly evident on a medical and ultimately gross economic one. Let’s use common sense, get with the 21st Century and improve the patient relationship literacy of our medical students, physicians and other providers.

When we discuss wireless health technologies we often think about fancy tools that collect data from our bodies, even show us our DNA. But if health literacy is not improved, the messages that other mHealth technologies deliver will never have their impact.

You may view the AMA article at:

David Lee Scher is a former cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiologist and the owner/director of DLS Healthcare Consulting, LLC, focused on serving mHealth companies and companies, providers and institutions adopting mHealth technologies. He also blogs at and may be reached on LinkedIn or at .


Add new comment