By Rachel Landen
With the increasing adoption of electronic health records, more patients are able to view their lab results electronically outside of clinical consultations, but a study suggests that access doesn’t mean patients understand what they’re seeing.
A team at the University of Michigan schools of Public Health and Medicine discovered that people with low literacy skills and low numerical comprehension were less than half as likely to identify if a lab result was inside or outside the standard range. They were also less capable of determining, based on the test values, whether or not they should contact their doctor, researchers said.
“We can spend all the money we want making sure that patients have access to their test results, but it won’t matter if they don’t know what to do with them,” Brian Zikmund-Fisher, associate professor of health behavior and health education at the university’s School of Public Health, said in a release. “The problem is, many people can’t imagine that giving someone an accurate number isn’t enough, even if it is in complex format.”
Through an Internet-administered survey, the research team asked more than 1,800 adults between the ages of 40 and 70, of whom nearly half were diabetics, to respond as if they had Type 2 diabetes. They were shown lab test results for hemoglobin A1c—a common measure for checking blood sugar—along with other blood tests, in addition to being measured on their ability to apply simple mathematical concepts and health literacy skills.
Of those who were assessed as having higher numerical comprehension and literacy skills, 77% could identify levels that fell outside of the standard or acceptable range. But of those with lower numerical comprehension and literacy skills, just 38% could do so. Those with higher scores on the numerical comprehension and literacy tests also were more sensitive to the test results insofar as knowing when they should consult with their doctor.
One motivation behind providing patients with access to their own data is to help them manage their own healthcare, but more research is necessary to decide how best to display this information, according to Zikmund-Fisher.
“Improving how we show people their health data may be a simple but powerful way to improve health outcomes,” he said.
The study, reported this month online in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, was supported by a grant from the University of Michigan Risk Science Center.