Health literacy and emergency department outcomes: a systematic review

Ann Emerg Med. 2011 Apr;57(4):334-45. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2010.08.035. Epub 2010 Oct 29.


Study objective: We assess emergency department (ED) patients' health literacy, the readability of ED patient materials, and the relationship between health literacy and ED outcomes through a systematic literature review.

Methods: PubMed, PsychInfo, CINAHL, Web of Knowledge, and ERIC were searched for studies published January 1, 1980, to July 15, 2010, conducted in the United States, reporting original data, and measuring ED patients' health literacy, the readability of ED materials, or the association between health literacy and ED-related outcomes. Two reviewers evaluated each study and abstracted information from included studies into evidence tables.

Results: We identified 413 articles, and 31 met inclusion criteria. Collectively, health literacy skills were assessed at or below the eighth-grade level for approximately 40% of ED patients. In contrast, ED patient materials were typically assessed at or above the ninth-grade level. Studies of adults aged 65 years and older found that those with lower health literacy were more likely to use the ED and incur higher ED costs. Studies of pediatric ED patients did not find direct effects of caregiver literacy on ED outcomes.

Conclusion: A substantial proportion of ED patients have limited health literacy, and ED materials are typically too complex for these patients. It is important for EDs to evaluate the accessibility and patient understanding of information presented. The evidence linking health literacy to ED outcomes is limited. Additional research is needed to better understand the relationship between health literacy and ED outcomes.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Emergency Service, Hospital* / standards
  • Health Literacy*
  • Humans
  • Patient Education as Topic / standards
  • Treatment Outcome*