Thursday, November 5, 2015

Digital literacy and what it means for healthcare

by Courtney Lyles, PhD

Should healthcare organizations be taking a major role in increasing the overall digital literacy of their patients? 

In my last post I talked about how most patients in our health system, the SFHN, want to use the internet to manage their health care and health, but don’t have the proficiency they need to be able to do so. I wanted to take that idea one step further. If our patients often can look something up on Google but don’t know how to use an email account (which is often required for signing up to access your electronic health record online) – should we be providing them with basic technology classes?  The answer I keep coming back to is “yes,” and here are a few reasons why:

  • Digital literacy is inextricably tied to social position in our country, and is directly linked to being an active member in one’s community.   We may think that knowing how to use computers and the Internet is something that kids and adolescents learn intuitively (or even in school) these days, but there are sophisticated skillsets needed to be able to comprehend and critically create content online.  In that way, the digital divide is not simply shrinking with age or as technology ownership expands.
  • Looking up (and likely acting on) health information online is a primary reason that people use the Internet to begin with.  This includes looking up something about one’s own health or for someone in your family.  Therefore, a recent health event or diagnosis is exactly the moment in which patients are engaged and want new digital literacy skills. 
  • We in healthcare know that social determinants of health are often more important to health outcomes than medical care itself.  If we want patients to be able to look for housing and jobs in the same way the can look for health information online, then we need to be one of the places that teaches those skills.
But this doesn’t mean that we are alone in providing these services for patients in the safety net.   At San Francisco General Hospital, we are fortunate to have a library on campus, and we have partnered closely with them to assist with these types of classes and one-on-one training.  In addition, we are able to refer patients to a wide variety of community partners who assist with digital literacy all over the Bay Area, such as the St. Anthony’s tech lab and the Community Technology Network.  

If you have ideas on this or ways in which you are working on this in your clinic or hospital- please share!


  1. I agree that computer literacy is essential to social, economic and health empowerment. This idea is a robust service-learning opportunity waiting to be built!! As with the Bay Area Help Desk Consortium (!projectsdetails/c922 ), undergraduate and even high school students could provide a large work-force for initiatives like this! Perhaps this could be offered through the Help Desk model (in SFGH and other hospitals) as well. Good luck!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.