Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Health Services Research and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

How the stigma of low literacy can impair patient-professional spoken interactions and affect health: insights from a qualitative investigation

Phyllis Easton1*, Vikki A Entwistle2 and Brian Williams3

Author Affiliations

1 NHS Tayside, Kings Cross, Clepington Road, Dundee, DD3 8EA, UK

2 University of Aberdeen, Health Services Research Unit, Foresterhill, Aberdeen, AB25 2ZD, UK

3 University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9 4LA, UK

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Health Services Research 2013, 13:319  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-13-319

Published: 16 August 2013

Abstract

Background

Low literacy is a significant problem across the developed world. A considerable body of research has reported associations between low literacy and less appropriate access to healthcare services, lower likelihood of self-managing health conditions well, and poorer health outcomes. There is a need to explore the previously neglected perspectives of people with low literacy to help explain how low literacy can lead to poor health, and to consider how to improve the ability of health services to meet their needs.

Methods

Two stage qualitative study. In-depth individual interviews followed by focus groups to confirm analysis and develop suggestions for service improvements. A purposive sample of 29 adults with English as their first language who had sought help with literacy was recruited from an Adult Learning Centre in the UK.

Results

Over and above the well-documented difficulties that people with low literacy can have with the written information and complex explanations and instructions they encounter as they use health services, the stigma of low literacy had significant negative implications for participants’ spoken interactions with healthcare professionals.

Participants described various difficulties in consultations, some of which had impacted negatively on their broader healthcare experiences and abilities to self-manage health conditions. Some communication difficulties were apparently perpetuated or exacerbated because participants limited their conversational engagement and used a variety of strategies to cover up their low literacy that could send misleading signals to health professionals.

Participants’ biographical narratives revealed that the ways in which they managed their low literacy in healthcare settings, as in other social contexts, stemmed from highly negative experiences with literacy-related stigma, usually from their schooldays onwards. They also suggest that literacy-related stigma can significantly undermine mental wellbeing by prompting self-exclusion from social participation and generating a persistent anxiety about revealing literacy difficulties.

Conclusion

Low-literacy-related stigma can seriously impair people’s spoken interactions with health professionals and their potential to benefit from health services. As policies increasingly emphasise the need for patients’ participation, services need to simplify the literacy requirements of service use and health professionals need to offer non-judgemental (universal) literacy-sensitive support to promote positive healthcare experiences and outcomes.

Keywords:
Low literacy; Patient-provider communication; Patient-provider relationships; Person-centred care; Qualitative