Health literacy is an issue facing many patients who receive a cancer diagnosis, as well as their caregivers. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy determined that only 12% of adults were proficient in health literacy skills.1 Of this group, only 3% of older adults were assessed as health literate.1 For older adults, health literacy levels, which directly impact health outcomes, are well below proficient. Low health literacy is directly tied to poor health outcomes and is associated with higher hospitalization rates, difficulty managing comorbid diseases, psychological distress, and increased mortality.2 Through increasing awareness and understanding of health literacy, health professionals are in a unique position to assist older adult patients with this important aspect of consumer-centric care.


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Health literacy is defined as the degree to which a person has the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.3

Health literacy is contingent on both the patient and the multiple systems the patient is navigating. The oncology world—including medical facilities, home care services, and social services—is its own system, with its own language and communication style. Patients are an integral part of this system, and inviting them to become an active participant in their care is important.


The most recent and exciting development in this area was the Cancer Health Literacy Study by the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center in which researchers worked to create a valid and reliable assessment tool specific to health literacy and cancer patients. You can learn more about the study here:

Establish a supportive environment Establishing an environment that is patient-centered and supportive is integral in laying the groundwork for effective learning.4 Stress and anxiety can limit the ability to listen, learn, and retain information, especially for the older adult. As health professionals, we want to communicate respect, acceptance, and self-determination. With these core values in mind, we have the ability to successfully engage and work with clients to assess and achieve learning goals.

Know your learner Who is the patient you are working with? Not every older adult is the same.5 The older adult patient is coming in with a wealth of life experience, as well as their own individual life view. Through interviewing techniques geared toward assessing the older adult patient’s health literacy capacity and ability, we can evaluate the patient’s needs, as well as skill areas, to establish the patient’s learning style. What helps the patient learn? 

  • Audio
  • Video
  • Literature
  • Images/graphics

The patient’s knowledge and skill set can be applied to new medical information through assessment and psychoeducation.