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Internet Familiarity Tied to Patient Digital Health Literacy

Research has found that characteristics such as age and sociodemographic have less influence on patient digital health literacy.

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Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- Patients who use the internet more tend to have higher digital health literacy, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

As healthcare professionals continue to turn to digital health to improve patient engagement and chronic disease management, understanding digital health literacy literacy levels and how that can affect patient engagement will become increasingly important.  

“Although access to the Internet is fairly widespread, eHealth resources are constantly evolving and require an ongoing adaptation by their users,” the research team said. “To ensure that a patient is able to use the available resources effectively, it therefore becomes necessary to assess their eHealth literacy and identify its determining factors in order to improve access and usability.”

Additionally, healthcare professionals must understand patient characteristics that can predict health and digital health literacy, and how the two types of knowledge can influence one another.

To that end, the researchers administered demographic surveys and eHealth and health literacy assessments to 453 patients at risk for or managing a chronic cardiovascular disease. The demographic survey collected information about patient age, gender, education, income, cardiovascular-related polypharmacy, private health insurance status, main electronic device use, and time spent on the internet.

Using comparative analyses, the researchers found that patients with poor digital health literacy tended to be older, have lower educational attainment, and spend less time on the internet. However, data analysis adjustments revealed that internet use was the only statistically significant factor that influenced digital health literacy.

This finding opens several doors for providers, the researchers stated, because it was the only tested variable that patients and providers have the power to change. Providers can encourage their patients to use digital health tools more often to attain better skills, or offer them instructions on how to meaningfully navigate these tools.

The researchers also found that general health literacy has an effect on a patient’s digital health literacy, although that effect is limited. Patients with high health literacy were more likely to have high digital health literacy because they found the tools useful for critical evaluation of their wellness. Health literacy had no effect on a patient’s confidence using health technology or navigation skills, however.

“This interpretation is independent of the knowledge and skills needed to effectively use electronic resources, which are very specific to eHealth and not necessarily addressed in a health literacy scale,” the researchers said.

These findings show that providers need to assess both digital health and health literacy in patients before prescribing a digital intervention in order to determine if a patient needs better digital support. Although a patient may appear to have high health literacy, she may lack the skills necessary to navigate a digital health tool, which would limit the tool’s effectiveness.

“Although related, eHealth literacy requires knowledge of electronic resources and abilities to use them, which are distinct from purely an understanding of health or health literacy,” the research team explained.

Previous research has shown that factors such as age or education can affect health and eHealth literacy. One study published in June, 2016 found that patients with higher education levels and more experience with the healthcare industry tend to have higher health literacy.

Other research, such as one study published in May 2016, found that older patients tend to be less enthusiastic and knowledgeable about digital health, as are Hispanic, black, and Filipino patients.

This most recent study suggests that these characteristics may be less important than how familiar patients are with the internet. Equipped with the knowledge that health and digital health literacy can be modified and are not necessarily innate, providers can assess a patient’s knowledge and then cater interventions from there.

“The findings of this study reinforced the importance of evaluating patients’ knowledge and access to electronic information through an eHealth literacy assessment alongside a health literacy assessment,” the research team concluded.

“By assessing these two types of literacy before implementing an eHealth intervention, participants who had a low level of eHealth literacy could thereby benefit from education in using electronic resources.”

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