Health Literacy Matters More Than Experience for Advance Care Planning Knowledge Among Older Adults

J Am Geriatr Soc. 2019 Oct;67(10):2151-2156. doi: 10.1111/jgs.16129. Epub 2019 Aug 19.


Background: Advance care planning (ACP) engagement is low among vulnerable populations, including those with limited health literacy (LHL). Limited knowledge about ACP may be a modifiable mediator of the relationship between LHL and ACP. Our goal was to determine whether health literacy is associated with ACP knowledge.

Design: Cross-sectional design.

Setting: A public health delivery system and Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco, CA.

Participants: English- and Spanish-speaking patients (N = 1400).

Measurements: ACP knowledge was assessed with seven validated multiple-choice questions. Health literacy was measured using a validated scale. Sociodemographic measures included age, sex, language, education, race, health status, and social support. Prior ACP experience was defined as having documented legal forms and/or goals-of-care discussions in the medical record. We used Kruskal-Wallis tests and linear regression to examine associations of ACP knowledge with LHL, prior ACP experience, and sociodemographic factors.

Results: Mean age of participants was 65 (±10) years, 48% were women, 34% had LHL, 32% were Spanish speaking, 47% had high school education or less, and 70% were nonwhite. Mean 7-point knowledge scores were lower for those with limited vs adequate health literacy (3.8 [SD = 1.9 vs 5.5 (SD = 1.7); P < .001). In multivariable analysis, ACP knowledge scores were 1.0 point lower among those with LHL; 0.6 points lower among Spanish speakers and those with high school education or less; and 0.5 points lower among individuals of nonwhite race (P < .001 for all). Knowledge scores were 0.02 points lower per year of older age (P = .007) and 0.01 points higher per point of greater social support (P = .005). Prior ACP experience was not associated with knowledge after adjustment (P = .7).

Conclusions: Health literacy and sociodemographics are stronger predictors than prior ACP experience of ACP knowledge. This study suggests that providing easy-to-understand ACP materials is paramount and should be offered even if patients have previous experience with the ACP process. J Am Geriatr Soc 67:2151-2156, 2019.

Keywords: advance care planning; health literacy; vulnerable populations.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Advance Care Planning / statistics & numerical data*
  • Aged
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Health Literacy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires