Medical or health literacy has a large impact on a patient’s ability to follow prescribed treatments and health maintenance directions. The strength of a patient’s medical literacy can influence treatment outcomes and overall disease prognosis. Various research has found that patients who understand their disease have increased survival rates.

What is Health Literacy?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines medical literacy as social and cognitive abilities that provide an individual with motivation in understanding and using the information provided to them to stay healthy.

Medical literacy is more than booking a successful health appointment and reading provided brochures. 

The term encompasses a patient’s degree of knowledge and understanding about their medical condition that allows them to:

  • Understand their level of current and ongoing care
  • Follow treatment instructions and participate in
  • Practice supportive health maintenance behaviors

Challenges Patients With Low Health Literacy Face

If a person is not provided with the proper resources or communication methods to correctly understand their diagnoses, from the location of their cancer to the importance and goals of prescribed treatment methods, they will not be motivated to advocating for their own care.

Low health literacy has also been found to reduce patient’s understanding of treatment goals, which again can affect their treatment compliance and outcomes. With low medical literacy, patients will not be able to make informed, and in some cases critical, treatment decisions.

In terms of cancer diagnosis, patients with low medical literacy may have limitations in making informed decisions about their care, following treatment instructions and participating in post-treatment health maintenance behaviors.

Factors Contributing to Low Health Literacy

The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) reported that around 20% of American adults lack the necessary literacy skills (reading, writing and oral comprehension) to function sufficiently in society. These individuals are disadvantaged as medical patients, and they may experience difficulties in obtaining, processing and understanding cancer information.

Factors that lead to low medical literacy include:

  • Jargon or specialized terms from medical professionals,
  • Lack of “teach-back” methods when discussing treatment delivery (having patients teach-back the information)
  • Language barriers
  • Readability and availability of educational resources

Low medical literacy in patients is often associated with a limited understanding of their own anatomy, meaning they may be unaware of where their colon or bowel are located. This compromised terminology can be accompanied by a limited health vocabulary, affecting a patient’s ability to understand their diagnoses and adhere to the proper treatment.

Benefits of Increased Health Literacy in Cancer Patients

Improved medical literacy has been found to increase a patient’s ability to access and navigate the cancer care system, from prevention and screening to understanding diagnoses. Medical literacy may also affect cancer patients’ compliance to treatment, understanding of treatment goals and ability to make informed decisions about their care. All of these factors have an effect on a patient’s overall quality of life and survival.

Studies have shown that individuals with increased medical literacy have a better understanding of the concept of cancer screening and the awareness of its benefits. As screening methods are used to detect cancer at an early stage, health literacy has an impact on cancer prevention and survival rates.

Ways to Increase Medical Literacy Around Mesothelioma

As mesothelioma is a relatively new and complex form of cancer, it can sometimes be difficult to understand all aspects of the disease, available treatment methods and possible effects.

If you have been recently diagnosed with mesothelioma and find yourself confused by your diagnosis, medications, prescribed treatment goals or additional treatment options available to you, there are several ways you can improve your own health literacy:

  • Ask your doctor questions—lots of questions—and if you still don’t understand what is being explained ask for more information to take home.
  • Repeat information back to your medical professional to give yourself an opportunity to clarify the information and possibly ask more questions.
  • Bring all your medications, even your vitamins, to your next medical appointment. This will give you an opportunity to voice any concerns and raise additional questions.
  • Ask a family member or friend to come with you to your next appointment. They may ask questions you didn’t think of or support you once you are back home.

In addition to the above, patients diagnosed with mesothelioma can also refer to Mesothelioma Help Now as an additional resource to increase their medical literacy. The site contains useful and simplified information on all aspects of mesothelioma which can help patients further understand their diagnosis and make informed treatment decisions to increase their survival rates.

View Author and Sources

  1. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, “Health literacy and cancer communication.” Retrieved from: Accessed on March 16, 2018.
  2. Gülnurİlgünİlkay SevinçTuraçSevilayOrak. Procedia, "Social and Behavioral Sciences", Volume 174, 12 February 2015. Accessed on March 9, 2018.

Last modified: September 1, 2018