Health literacy: implications for family medicine

Fam Med. 2004 Sep;36(8):595-8.


As many as 90 million Americans have difficulty understanding and acting on health information. This health literacy epidemic is increasingly recognized as a problem that influences health care quality and cost. Yet many physicians do not recognize the problem or lack the skills and confidence to approach the subject with patients. In this issue of Family Medicine, several articles address health literacy in family medicine. Wallace and Lennon examined the readability of American Academy of Family Physicians patient education materials available via the Internet. They found that three of four handouts were written above the average reading level of American adults. Rosenthal and colleagues surveyed residents and found they lacked the confidence to screen and counsel adults about literacy. They used a Reach Out and Read program with accompanying resident education sessions to provide a practical and effective means for incorporating literacy assessment and counseling into primary care. Chew and colleagues presented an alternative to existing health literacy screening tests by asking three questions to detect inadequate health literacy. Likewise, Shea and colleagues reviewed the prospect of shortening the Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine (REALM), a commonly used health literacy screening tool. Both the Chew and Shea articles highlight the need for improved methods for recognizing literacy problems in the clinical setting. Further research is required to identify effective interventions that will strengthen the skills and coping strategies of both patients and providers and also prevent and limit poor reading and numeracy ability in the next generation.

Publication types

  • Editorial
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Educational Measurement
  • Educational Status
  • Family Practice / education
  • Family Practice / standards*
  • Health Education / methods*
  • Health Education / standards
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Patient Participation*
  • Professional-Patient Relations*
  • Reading
  • Societies, Medical / standards
  • United States