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Purpose: Difficulties in identifying and caring for patients with limited health literacy have prompted interest in clinical screening to assess health literacy. Little agreement exists, however, on the utility of such screening. In this case study we explore the business and clinical cases for screening for health literacy using the Newest Vital Sign (NVS), a brief instrument specifically developed for use in primary care settings.

Methods: Data were collected in 2008 in the Morehouse School of Medicine Department of Family Medicine Primary Care Clinic, where health literacy screening was implemented as part of routine intake procedures within an ongoing quality improvement effort to improve cardiovascular disease and diabetes outcomes. Specifically, we monitored time requirements, administrative and training costs, and clinician utilization associated with the NVS.

Results: Results identified only small time and cost constraints associated with implementing NVS screening. Clinical utility was more problematic, however, because refresher trainings were needed to ensure continued staff and clinician buy-in, use of the NVS data, and implementation of best practices to communicate with at-risk patients.

Conclusions: Though the time and cost constraints associated with screening for health literacy were small, clinician utilization of this data in decision making and care processes may require further training and/or support.