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Intersection of digital literacy and health literacy

Health and technology literacy colleagues,


According to a fascinating January 24th video interview with Dr. Eric Topol, aired on NBC TV and archived at ,

in the near future patient smartphones wireless wrist monitors, and other mobile devices may become the norm in healthcare practice.  According to Dr. Topol, this means faster, much less expensive, more frequent patient data, provided to patients themselves as well as to their doctors, and possibly online real-time office visits done remotely, with patient and doctor looking at the data together. Dr Topol  says patients tomorrow can take ownership of their health, make their healthcare decisions with information they collect.


If patients don’t have technology literacy, cannot use the Internet and mobile devices, and cannot interpret text, graphs and charts, however, they will be left out of these potentially lower-cost and better health care practices


I wonder if anyone in this CoP is working on this problem now, or is aware of others whoi are.


David J. Rosen


David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Health literacy colleagues,

As a follow up to my post yesterday, Intersection of digital literacy and health literacy,  is a business article from Today’s Boston Globe, “Firm will venture into patient tools”. . The article is about a Massachusetts company that is expected to invest $25 million to develop and market “patient engagement tools”. “The tools will include an app for iPhones and other mobile devices, giving patients access to their medical records, letting them keep track of medicines and test results, and enabling them to e-mail doctors with questions.”

The article’s author, Globe staff member Robert Weisman, points out thatWhile there already are hundreds of health care apps — many of them free — most are designed to provide information about medical conditions and help people monitor diets or fitness programs. But there are seldom doctors behind such apps. By contrast, [this] app will be “interoperable” with the records of its customers — about 72,800 physicians offices serving some 8 million consumers nationwide — who are betting improved communications between doctors and patients will ultimately make for better health outcomes.”

Impatient for patient digital tools? It looks like we won’t have to wait long. But what about adults who have low health literacy and digital technology skills? Will an unfortunate result of these new technologies be an even greater health divide, or will our field act on this now, increasing adult learners new health and digital literacy skills?

Anyone working on this problem now?

David J. Rosen


S Jones's picture
One hundred

I hope somebody's workin' on it, because there are *so* many dangerous directions for it to go...  whether it's having folks convinced that they need the "medication du jour" that some pharmaceutical is advertising (and now the advertising can be targeted to their profiles) or folks misunderstanding directions...  

Julie McKinney's picture
One hundred

I agree with Winston that parallel funding would be key, not just because it would address both parts, but because it would formally acknowledge how the issue needs to be addressed from both ends.

So adult learners need to be involved in learning technology as a basic literacy skill, because that's what it is becoming. Just as we realized years ago that we need to include health and technology as content ares in literacy education, we now need heatlh technology! It may be that using smart phones to access health records, information and better contact with health care providers will give incentives to low-literate adults to engage in learning technology.

Also, as David and Winston said, these technologies need to be developed with the involvement of low-literate adults AND health literacy professionals. So the other way to involve adult learners is to use them to inform and evaluate new technologies. I am working on a project where we are testing both a website and smart phone app with adult learners to see if it will help them to learn about medications, communicate better with their doctors, and adhere to their medication regimes.

I also want to remind everyone to check out the results of the Health Literacy Hackathon, which resulted in some interesting technologies that did focuws on health literacy. See the article here:

Winston Lawrence's picture

 David: This is interesting stuff and your questions about what would happen with those who have low levels of literacy are very appropriate. I too would hope that the field would work on this matter.  But how could adult literacy programs move in this direction without approproiate funding? In the healthcare sector a lot of money is being poured into the development of Electronic Medical Records. The goal is for patients to have accurate information in order for them to make appropriate decisions. Devolping those digital tools would contribute to better decision making.

I would argue that there should be paralell funding available for educating undereducated patients, many of whom attend literacy programs.

With all the advantages of the new health care law,  we will hit a brick wall if undereducated adult patients/students are not given the education they need and deserve. Access to health care will be just cheap talk.

I think we need a massive lobbying effort to bring this matter to the attention of those responsible for implementing the new health care law.


Winston Lawrence Ed D

Literacy Assistance Cenrter

New York.

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Hello Winston,

Good to "hear your voice" in this discussion. I agree that attention and funding are needed.

In this case, because we are talking about smart phone apps, there is also an opportunity for simply-made screen capture videos that explain how to use the health data apps. These could be accessed from the same smart phone at no cost to the user. Of course they would need to be made well and could not be text-dependent (unless there were a free, easy-to-use  text-to-speech option built in.) One model for these kinds of short screen capture videos is a collection of videos made by young Google employees for their older family members on how to do things with computers and the Internet,  (I'll be demonstrating some of these videos at the Literacy Assistance Center in a workshop on February 27th.) Something like these videos could be made for helping people learn how to use mobile health apps. Perhaps it already has been done. Anyone know?

This is not to say that we no longer need to invest in,  as you point out, Winston, _significantly increase_ our investment in, basic reading, writing, numeracy and science skills. It's one thing to learn to use an app. It's another to understand what the data mean, and still another to know what to do about the information, how to use it to make decisions. Making good health decisions will, for most people, require reading -- including higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and appropriate application of what is read. There's a good chance that what, for a while at least, was referred to as quantitative literacy skills (reading and interpreting numbers) will be needed even more, and by more people, if our health care systems shift more responsibility for health decision-making to patients.

David J. Rosen