When Jonathan J. Beitler, MD, met with a patient who had been disabled by a recent stroke, he was surprised by the man’s initial interaction. “His first words to me were, ‘I don’t like doctors,’” said Dr. Beitler, an oncologist at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta. “I said, ‘Neither do I,’ and we did much better after that. But because the patient had poor medical literacy, he focused on the attitude of those taking care of him and focused on emotions rather than objectively looking at what his health care problem was and how best to deal with it.”
Explore this issue:September 2012
Dr. Beitler, the lead author of a 2010 American Journal of Otolaryngology study on health literacy among laryngectomy patients, found that patients considered to have low health literacy levels were also less likely to have access to health care and, subsequently, were less likely to make informed choices about their health (J Otolaryngol. 2012;31;29-31). “People who are health care illiterate seem to make their decisions based on emotions and transportation barriers (often influenced by the weather), as well as their resources,” he said. “Facts and objective needs are way down on their list of considerations.”
Luckily, Dr. Beitler’s patient had a devoted friend who could drive him to follow-up appointments and a highly supportive wife at home. Such allies, along with a strong doctor-patient relationship, ultimately helped the patient achieve an optimal outcome.