Nicholas Duran receives funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF 1660894). The current work is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH R01 LM012355).
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.