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October 21, 2021
David Burda
Consumerism Outcomes System Dynamics

The Health Literacy Gap Between Doctors and Patients

Overheard in every household in the U.S. at one point or another: 

Someone other than you: “Well, what did the doctor say?

You: “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember” or “I’m not really sure.”

Someone other than you sighs. 

Health literacy isn’t just about understanding your health insurance benefits from your insurer or your employer. It’s also about listening to and understanding what your doctor or another provider told you during your visit, whether that’s what’s wrong with you or what you should do to get better.

That point, which I neglected to mention in other recent pieces on health literacy, was driven home by the results of a new survey from the American Health Information Management Association Foundation. You can download the 36-page survey report, Understanding, Access and Use of Health Information in America, from the AHIMA Foundation here.  

The foundation asked a representative sample of 1,059 adults in the U.S. age 18 or over a number of questions about how and where they get information about their own health. And, as it turns out, a lot of them said they don’t get it from their doctor during an office visit. For example: 

  • 62 percent said they were not “extremely confident” in their understanding of the health information that they discussed with their doctor
  • 31 percent said they don’t immediately remember the health information that they discussed with their doctor after a visit
  • 24 percent said they don’t understand all the medication information that their doctor gave them during a visit
  • 15 percent said they sometimes feel more confused about their health after a doctor’s visit

When they can’t get or don’t get health information from their doctor, many of them get it from the “street,” where many of them also get their information about their insurance benefits. For example:

  • 42 percent said they research their doctor’s recommendations after their appointment
  • 80 percent of those who said they research their doctor’s recommendation after their appointment do it online
  • 86 percent said they believe that the information on the Internet is credible
  • 29 percent said they talk to non-medical friends, family members and colleagues
  • 22 percent said they read office pamphlets, articles or journal reviews
  • And 6 percent said they call an 800-phone number (I’m hoping related to their medical situation or condition)

So now what we have is a health literacy gap between patients and their doctors over medical care and a health literacy gap between employees and employers (or members and health plans) over benefits. In both cases, the gaps are driving consumers to alternative sources of information about their health and about their insurance coverage. That would suggest that providers and payers have failed to educate their patients, employees and members about how to use the healthcare system more effectively.

Oh, who I’m I kidding? We know providers and payers have failed in that regard. It’s why we need care managers and patient navigators with so many start-ups trying to fill that void. It’s almost as if providers and payers don’t really want educated patients, employees and members. Hmm….

If you’d like to learn more about the challenge of health literacy, check out:

All on 4sighthealth.com.

Thanks for reading.  

About the Author

David Burda

David Burda began covering healthcare in 1983 and hasn’t stopped since. Dave writes this monthly column “Burda on Healthcare,” contributes weekly blog posts, manages our weekly newsletter 4sight Friday, and hosts our weekly Roundup podcast. Dave believes that healthcare is a business like any other business, and customers — patients — are king. If you do what’s right for patients, good business results will follow.

Dave’s personnel experiences with the healthcare system both as a patient and family caregiver have shaped his point of view. It’s also been shaped by covering the industry for 40 years as a reporter and editor. He worked at Modern Healthcare for 25 years, the last 11 as editor.

Prior to Modern Healthcare, he did stints at the American Medical Record Association (now AHIMA) and the American Hospital Association. After Modern Healthcare, he wrote a monthly column for Twin Cities Business explaining healthcare trends to a business audience, and he developed and executed content marketing plans for leading healthcare corporations as the editorial director for healthcare strategies at MSP Communications.

When he’s not reading and writing about healthcare, Dave spends his time riding the trails of DuPage County, IL, on his bike, tending his vegetable garden and daydreaming about being a lobster fisherman in Maine. He lives in Wheaton, IL, with his lovely wife of 40 years and his three children, none of whom want to be journalists or lobster fishermen.

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