The effect of health literacy on knowledge and receipt of colorectal cancer screening: a survey study

BMC Fam Pract. 2007 Mar 30:8:16. doi: 10.1186/1471-2296-8-16.


Background: An estimated one-half of Americans have limited health literacy skills. Low literacy has been associated with less receipt of preventive services, but its impact on colorectal cancer (CRC) screening is unclear. We sought to determine whether low literacy affects patients' knowledge or receipt of CRC screening.

Methods: Pilot survey study of patients aged 50 years and older at a large, university-affiliated internal medicine practice. We assessed patients' knowledge and receipt of CRC screening, basic sociodemographic information, and health literacy level. We defined limited literacy as reading below the ninth grade level as determined by the Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine. Bivariate analyses and exact logistic regression were used to determine the association of limited health literacy with knowledge and receipt of CRC screening.

Results: We approached 105 patients to yield our target sample of 50 completing the survey (recruitment rate 48%). Most subjects were female (72%), African-American (58%), and had household incomes less than $25,000 (87%). Overall, 48% of patients had limited literacy skills (95% CI 35% to 61%). Limited literacy patients were less likely than adequate literacy patients to be able to name or describe any CRC screening test (50% vs. 96%, p < 0.01). In the multivariable model, limited literacy patients were 44% less likely to be knowledgeable of CRC screening (RR 0.56, p < 0.01). Self-reported screening rates were similar (54% vs. 58%, p = 0.88).

Conclusion: Patients with limited literacy skills are less likely to be knowledgeable of CRC screening compared to adequate literacy patients. Primary care providers should ensure patients' understanding of CRC screening when discussing screening options. Further research is needed to determine if educating low literacy patients about CRC screening can increase screening rates.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Colorectal Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Compliance*
  • Patient Education as Topic / standards*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Population Surveillance*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States