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AI points to ways to improve doctor-patient communication

New study from Kaiser Permanente and UCSF aims to help doctors provide better care for patients with low health literacy 


A computer analysis of hundreds of thousands of secure email messages between doctors and patients found that doctors often use language that is too complex for certain patients to understand. 

The study published December 17 in Science Advances found that only 4 in 10 patients with low health literacy had doctors who sent them email messages that used simple language.

Andrew Karter, PhD, Research Scientist, Division of Research.

“Unlike a clinic encounter, where a doctor can use visual cues or verbal feedback from each patient to verify understanding, in an email exchange, a doctor can never be sure that their patient understood the written message,” said the study’s senior author Andrew Karter, PhD, senior research scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research. “Our findings suggest that patients benefit when doctors tailor their email messages to match the complexity of language the patient uses.”

Doctors and patients are increasingly communicating through secure messaging. The study found that the doctors who performed best in surveys of how well patients understood their care tended to tailor their electronic messages to their patients’ health literacy level.

For their study, the researchers used computer algorithms and machine learning to measure the linguistic complexity of more than 250,000 secure messages exchanged between diabetes patients and their doctors through Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s secure email portal.

Read more about the study here.

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