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The meaning and the measure of health literacy


Health literacy is a complicated construct that depends on individual capacity to communicate and the demands posed by society and the health care system. More comprehensive tests are needed to understand the gap between capacities and current demands to help guide efforts to educate children and adults about health issues and to develop health-related information that more of the general public can understand. For research, new instruments are needed that will measure individuals reading fluency more precisely without posing an undue response burden. Computer-assisted testing, which selects items from a bank of possible items according to a baseline-predicted reading ability and responses to previous questions, should allow more accurate measurement of indiidual capacity without increasing the time required to complete testing. It remains unclear whether it is possible to develop an accurate, practical “screening” test to identify individuals with limited health literacy. Even if this goal is achieved, it remains unclear whether it is better to screen patients or to adopt “universal precautions” to avoid miscommunication by using plain language in all oral and written communication and confirming understanding with all patients by having them repeat back their understanding of their diagnosis and treatment plan. George Bernard Shaw said, “The main problem with communication is the assumption that it has occurred.” This is a universal truth that transcends reading ability.

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Correspondence to David W. Baker MD, MPH.

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Baker, D.W. The meaning and the measure of health literacy. J GEN INTERN MED 21, 878–883 (2006).

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Key words

  • literacy
  • measures
  • measurement