The big idea
Most doctors use language that is too complex for their patients to understand, but some have the unique ability to tailor their language to meet their patients’ communication needs and overcome the confusion that is so common in health care. These are the key findings of our new study recently published in Science Advances.
This language-matching strategy – what we call “precision communication” – appears to be especially helpful for the one in three Americans who have low health literacy. Prior studies have shown that individuals with low health literacy have worse comprehension of medical information and instructions and poorer health outcomes compared with those with adequate health literacy.
To conduct our research, we analyzed hundreds of thousands of secure email messages between doctors and patients with diabetes. Using sophisticated computational linguistics techniques, our research team discovered that only about 40% of patients with low health literacy have a doctor who adapts the complexity of their language to match the language their patient uses. We also found that even fewer patients are cared for by doctors who are consistently attuned to the kind of language that their patients use – whether it be low or high health literacy – and then adapt their communication accordingly.
We found that patients fortunate enough to be under the care of doctors who practice this form of precision communication were better able to understand and act on their doctors’ advice and instructions. Patients whose doctors don’t match their language to their patients’ health literacy are more likely to be confused and may get sicker. The benefit of this approach was so strong as to eliminate the usual gaps in understanding between patients of low and high health literacy.