Health literacy instrument in family medicine: the "newest vital sign" ease of use and correlates

J Am Board Fam Med. 2010 Mar-Apr;23(2):195-203. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2010.02.070278.


Background: Health literacy has been defined as the ability to obtain, process, and understand the basic information needed to make appropriate health decisions. Half of adults lack the health literacy skills needed for our complex health care environment. In 2005, Weiss et al introduced the Newest Vital Sign (NVS), an instrument that can be used to quickly assess health literacy. The purpose of this study was to determine the acceptability and timeliness of using the NVS to measure the level of health literacy in various suburban, urban, and rural primary care settings. A secondary purpose was to determine the influence of taking a health class on one's level of health literacy.

Methods: In this cross-sectional design, adults were recruited from 4 primary care settings and student athletes were recruited during preparticipation sports physicals. The NVS was administered and health literacy rates were compared with known trends. A subset of 50 patients was timed during test administration, and refusals were logged throughout. The adults and the athletes were analyzed separately.

Results: One thousand fourteen patients (including athletes) agreed to participate (response rate, 97.5%). Average time needed to complete the NVS was 2.63 minutes. Of the adults tested, 48.1% demonstrated adequate health literacy. In logistic regression analysis, younger age, more formal education, health class participation, and body mass index were positive predictors of adequate health literacy among adults. An interaction term was used for gender/race, with white women used as the comparator. The gender/race odds ratio negatively affected literacy, with white men at 0.497 (95% CI, 0.328-0.753), non-white women at 0.177 (95% CI, 0.111-0.282), and non-white men at 0.210 (95% CI, 0.110-0.398). Among the participating middle- and high-school athletes, 59.7% had adequate health literacy. In logistic regression of this population, body mass index was a positive predictor whereas gender/race was a negative predictor.

Conclusion: The NVS revealed health literacy status in less than 3 minutes, was widely accepted, and provided results comparable to more extensive literacy tests. Particularly, taking a health education class was associated with higher levels of health literacy among adults.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Family Practice*
  • Female
  • Food Labeling
  • Health Education
  • Health Literacy*
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Ice Cream
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Primary Health Care
  • Psychometrics / statistics & numerical data
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sex Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires*
  • United States
  • Young Adult