Many dialysis patients, particularly African Americans and veterans and those with lower educational level, have limited health literacy, according to researchers.

“We anticipate our findings will increase awareness of the importance of health literacy in patient with kidney disease, stimulate providers to consider literacy when communicating with patients, and lead to future studies to address limitations in health literacy,” said lead author Jamie Green, MD, of the University of Pittsburgh.

Limited health literacy is estimated to affect more than 90 million Americans and currently is an important public health concern. Yet, few studies have looked at health literacy in patients on hemodialysis. Health literacy is defined as the ability to obtain, process, and understand health information to make appropriate health decisions.

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Dr. Green and her colleagues tested 260 patients on long-term dialysis with a tool that assesses one’s ability to read common medical words and lay terms for body parts and illnesses. The median age was 64 years, 40% were African American, and 57% were male. Forty-one patients (16%) had limited health literacy. Patients with less than a high school education exhibited more than a 12-fold increased risk of limited health literacy, and African Americans and veterans had more than a threefold increased risk, the researchers reported in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (online ahead of print). 

The researchers are following up these individuals to determine if limited health literacy affects how patients adhere to dialysis treatment, whether they undergo transplantation, and whether they die prematurely.