Background and objectives: Patients' health literacy is increasingly recognized as a critical factor affecting patient-physician communication and health outcomes. We reviewed research on health literacy, examined its impact on patient-physician communication, and offer recommendations to enhance communication with patients who have poor health literacy.
Methods: We conducted a literature review using the MEDLINE database for January 1966 through July 2001. The keywords "literacy" and "health literacy" were searched independently and in combination with the medical subject headings (MeSH) "physician-patient communication," "communication," and "reading."
Results: Poor health literacy is common, especially among elderly patients. More than 33% of patients ages 65 and older have inadequate or marginal health literacy, as do up to 80% of patients in public hospital settings. Patients with poor health literacy have a complex array of communication difficulties, which may affect health outcomes. Such patients report worse health status and have less understanding about their medical conditions and treatment; they may have increased hospitalization rates. 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.
Conclusions: Future research needs to address identification of optimal methods for communicating with patients who have low literacy skills. This should focus on the effect of poor health literacy on patients' ability to communicate their history and physicians' ability to solicit information, as well as identifying the most-effective techniques to educate patients.