Context: Patients with the greatest health care needs may have the least ability to read and comprehend information needed to function successfully as patients.
Objective: To examine the scope and consequences of poor health literacy in the United States, characterize its implications for patients and physicians, and identify policy and research issues.
Participants: The 12 members of the Ad Hoc Committee on Health Literacy, American Medical Association Council on Scientific Affairs, were selected by a key informant process as experts in the field of health literacy from a variety of backgrounds in clinical medicine, medical and health services research, medical education, psychology, adult literacy, nursing, and health education.
Evidence: Literature review using the MEDLINE database for January 1966 through October 1, 1996, searching Medical Subject Heading (MeSH) reading combined with text words health or literacy in the title, abstract, or MeSH. A subsequent search using reading as a search term identified articles published between 1993 and August 1998. Authors of relevant published abstracts were asked to provide manuscripts. Experts in health services research, health education, and medical law identified proprietary and other unpublished references.
Consensus process: Consensus among committee members was reached through review of 216 published articles and additional unpublished manuscripts and telephone and Internet conferencing. All committee members approved the final report.
Conclusions: Patients with inadequate health literacy have a complex array of communications difficulties, which may interact to influence health outcome. These patients report worse health status and have less understanding about their medical conditions and treatment. Preliminary studies indicate inadequate health literacy may increase the risk of hospitalization. Professional and public awareness of the health literacy issue must be increased, beginning with education of medical students and physicians and improved patient-physician communication skills. Future research should focus on optimal methods of screening patients to identify those with poor health literacy, effective health education techniques, outcomes and costs associated with poor health literacy, and the causal pathway of how poor health literacy influences health.