Potentially preventable use of emergency services: The role of low health literacy

Jessica R. Schumacher*, Allyson G. Hall, Terry C. Davis, Connie L. Arnold, Robert D. Bennett, Michael S. Wolf, Donna L. Carden

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


BACKGROUND:: Limited health literacy is a barrier for understanding health information and has been identified as a risk factor for overuse of the emergency department (ED). The association of health literacy with access to primary care services in patients presenting to the ED has not been fully explored. OBJECTIVE:: To examine the relationship between health literacy, access to primary care, and reasons for ED use among adults presenting for emergency care. METHODS:: Structured interviews that included health literacy assessment were performed involving 492 ED patients at one Southern academic medical center. Unadjusted and multivariable logistic regression models assessed the relationship between health literacy and (1) access to a personal physician; (2) doctor office visits; (3) ED visits; (4) hospitalizations; and (5) potentially preventable hospital admissions. RESULTS:: After adjusting for sociodemographic and health status, those with limited health literacy reported fewer doctor office visits [odds ratio (OR)=0.6; 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.4-1.0], greater ED use, (OR=1.6; 95% CI, 1.0-2.4), and had more potentially preventable hospital admissions (OR=1.7; 95% CI, 1.0-2.7) than those with adequate health literacy. After further controlling for insurance and employment status, fewer doctor office visits remained significantly associated with patient health literacy (OR=0.5; 95% CI, 0.3-0.9). Patients with limited health literacy reported a preference for emergency care, as the services were perceived as better. CONCLUSIONS:: Among ED patients, limited health literacy was independently associated with fewer doctor office visits and a preference for emergency care. Policies to reduce ED use should consider steps to limit barriers and improve attitudes toward primary care services.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)654-658
Number of pages5
JournalMedical care
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2013


  • access to care
  • emergency department
  • health literacy
  • primary care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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