Background: Physician-patient communication can be described according to 4 prototypes of control--paternalism, mutuality, consumerism, or default. Patients with inadequate health literacy skills may be less-active participants in their care and more likely to have paternalistic encounters.
Methods: Two independent coders analyzed 31 transcribed outpatient medical visits between physicians and African American patients with diabetes according to the 4 prototypes of control. Differences in communication and the balance of power by level of patients' health literacy were analyzed by quantitative and qualitative methods.
Results: Fourteen patients (45%) had inadequate health literacy, and most of them (N=8, 57%) had paternalistic encounters. Among patients with marginal or adequate health literacy skills, only 4 (23%) had paternalistic visits (p = .06), and encounters marked by mutuality were most common (N= 9, 53%).
Conclusion: Patients with inadequate health literacy appear more likely to have paternalistic interactions with their physicians.