Prevalence of- and factors associated with limited health literacy in spine patients

Published:November 10, 2022DOI:



      Limited health literacy exacerbates health inequity and has serious implications for patient care. It hinders successful communication and comprehension of relevant health information, which can lead to suboptimal care. Despite the evidence regarding the significance of health literacy, the topic has received little consideration in orthopedic spine patients.


      To investigate the prevalence of- and factors associated with limited health literacy among outpatients presenting to a tertiary urban academic hospital-based orthopedic spine center.

      Study design


      Patient sample

      Patients 18 years of age or older seen at a tertiary urban academic hospital-based multi-surgeon outpatient spine center.

      Outcome measures

      The Newest Vital Sign (NVS) health literacy assessment.


      Between December 2021 and March 2022, 447 consecutive English-speaking patients over the age of 18 years and new to the outpatient spine clinic were approached for participation in a cross-sectional survey study, of which 405 agreed to participate. Patients completed the Newest Vital Sign (NVS) health literacy assessment tool, the Rapid Estimation of Adult Literacy in Medicine Short Form (REALM-SF), and a sociodemographic survey (including race/ethnicity, level of education, employment status, income, and marital status). The NVS scores were divided into limited (0–3) and adequate (4–6) health literacy. REALM-SF scores were classified into reading levels below ninth grade (0–6) or at least ninth grade (7). Additional demographic data was extracted from patient records. Online mapping tools were used to collect the Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) and the Area Deprivation Index (ADI) for each patient. Subsequently, multivariable regression modeling was performed to identify independent factors associated with limited health literacy.


      The prevalence of limited health literacy in patients presenting to an urban academic outpatient spine center was 33% (135/405). Unadjusted analysis found that patients who were socioeconomically disadvantaged (eg, unemployed, lower household income, publicly insured and higher SVI) and had more unfavorable social determinant of health features (eg, housing concerns, higher ADI, less years of education, below ninth grade reading level, unmarried) had high rates of limited health literacy. Adjusted regression analysis demonstrated that limited health literacy was independently associated with higher ADI state decile, living less than 10 years at current address, having housing concerns, not being employed, non-native English speaking, having less years of education and below ninth grade reading level.


      This study found that a substantial portion of the patients presenting to an outpatient spine center have limited health literacy, more so if they are socially disadvantaged. Future efforts should investigate the impact of limited health literacy on access to care, treatment outcomes and health care utilization in orthopedic patients. Neighborhood social vulnerability measures may be a feasible way to identify patients at risk of limited health literacy in clinical practice and offer opportunities for tailored patient care. This may contribute to prioritizing the mitigation of disparities and aid in the development of meaningful interventions to improve health equity in orthopedics.


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