Cheat Sheet

Digital Literacy

10 Minute Read

Key Takeaways
  • Digital literacy is one of the most important factors in connecting patients with digitally enabled care.
  • Digital literacy and digital health literacy are intertwined competencies. Sustained education in both builds patients’ digital confidence, motivation, and self-advocacy.
  • Language barriers and inaccessible user experience can exacerbate existing health inequities. Organizations should take into account varying levels of digital literacy when designing communication technologies.
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What is it?

Digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate, requiring both cognitive and technical skills. This includes the ability to navigate electronic devices, conduct online searches, and engage in digital communication.

Digital health literacy exists under this umbrella and relies on many of the foundational elements of general digital literacy. These include the ability to research symptoms, find providers, use a patient portal, and connect with providers during a telehealth appointment. As providers increasingly embrace care delivery in the virtual setting, digital health literacy is becoming essential to ensure patients can access care.


Why does it matter?

Digital literacy is essential for connecting patients with digitally enabled care. Patients need the skills, ability, and confidence to engage with technology constructively. However, the Pew Research Center finds that one-third of adults who are offline feel like the internet is “too difficult” to learn or use.

Intertwined with digital literacy are issues concerning language barriers and accessibility. For the 67 million individuals in the U.S. who report speaking a primary language other than English at home, language flexibility across platforms and devices is a critical first step towards building their digital literacy. Similarly, accessibility in user experience (UX) design is necessary for individuals with visual, hearing, or other disabilities.

Low digital literacy affects nearly every aspect of daily life, and many providers encounter its ramifications in their practices. A survey from the Covid-19 Healthcare Coalition found that 61% of physicians identify is digital literacy as a barrier to patients using telehealth—second only to technology access (69%).


How does it work?

Digital illiteracy has many ramifications, and language and accessibility challenges only exacerbate these inequities. Patients with low digital literacy may face: 

  • Challenges in navigating provider websites and patient portals, as well as researching symptoms and diagnoses.
  • Lower medication adherence because they’re unable to easily refill, search for or interpret information about their medication, side effects, and dosage.
  • Limited telehealth utilization (Virtual care was not designed for patients with low digital literacy or non-English speakers. Though the Covid-19 pandemic pushed mass scaling of digital platforms, this technology and integration has often not addressed literacy and language concerns).

These challenges are not new. Digital literacy has long existed as a barrier for telehealth adoption. As patients are excluded from digitally enabled care, they will trust such platforms less, creating a cycle of inaccessibility and distrust that perpetuates digital inequity.

I think we’re seeing what the system was built to do. We had built… these virtual care tools [that] weren’t for the limited English population. These tools were for the privileged. When we made the shift from these tools being privileged care to standard care, you see all the people who aren’t able to access them

- Jorge Rodriguez, Brigham and Women’s Hospital


Conversations you should be having

Digital inequity is a problem in many parts of people’s day-to-day lives, and health care is no different. Providers can’t solve this problem on their own.

That said, improving digital health literacy is becoming essential for care delivery. Use this list of considerations to learn how your organization can develop strategies to build patients’ digital health literacy and promote greater trust.

  1. Identify patients with limited digital literacy. Because digital literacy itself is hard to measure, providers can often use data on individuals’ technology access and connectivity to find correlations between these cohorts.

  2. Create patient education materials that outline what to expect during a virtual care encounter. Ensure that patient materials are translated into non-English languages that are prominent in your community.

  3. Develop partnerships and internal roles scoped to promote digital literacy. Community partners can offer a nuanced understanding of disadvantaged populations. Providers can build on existing relationships to tailor digital literacy programs to meet patients’ preferences and needs, as well as foster better overall trust throughout the community.

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