As doctors work with patients to try to better outcomes and ensure that they are able to stick to treatment plans, professionals in the medtech industry strive to improve patient literacy. For doctors, better patient literacy means fewer visits and better communication during visits. Being able to impart important concepts onto patients can even save lives.

Because of this, peripheral health tools such as patient portals should strive to promote health literacy whenever possible. Poor literacy can severely impede use of these tools without a qualified medical professional on hand to explain terms and concepts. This can also adversely affect engagement, as they may be less willing to try to learn if they feel that it is difficult or impossible.

Digital health literacy is a combination of both these factors and the ability of patients to successfully use patient portals and similar tools. Given the time and money that health organizations may sink into building these resources for patients, poor digital health literacy levels can cause them to lose money in the long term.

Unfortunately, patient health literacy is at a low. Only 12% of patients are at least at proficient levels, according to HHS statistics. However, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School have been working towards identifying and rectifying some of these issues. A recent study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, details their efforts to help those in the healthcare industry test digital medical literacy. This is notable because such a test was previously unheard of, with most tests focused on traditional contexts.

Targeting patients with low levels of literacy is valuable so that healthcare professionals can better reevaluate their education efforts. The researchers started with common problems, both in terms of health issues and failure of patients to understand them. The test aims to identify deficiencies in the setting of a patient portal and flag these frequent issues as they arise.

The test, entitled ComprehENotes, evaluates the patient’s understanding of medical jargon as used in patient portals. Many of the questions are fairly simple, allowing for it to perform better when it comes to identifying patients with very low levels of health literacy. Identifying these patients can help alleviate concerns and ensure that they are able to use these tools in a way that improves their outcomes.

The researchers have expressed their satisfaction with preliminary testing and wish to expand their efforts in the near future. Given the breadth of care facilities and the challenges faced by individuals with certain diseases, they hope to adjust the test for patients with these conditions. Personalized questions would also have the potential to evaluate patients based on their own records and determine specific courses of action for each to improve their literacy.

Health literacy and digital health literacy have become increasingly entwined with the glut of patient tools designed to easily access records and other information. Unfortunately, these tools are ineffective if patients are not willing or able to access them. Assessments such as ComprehENotes can play a role in giving these patients the oversight necessary to take control of their own health.