A parent’s limited capacity to process health information is directly related to a variety of child health issues, including child television viewing, at-risk family behaviors that lead to child injury, and parent depression, according to a recent study by CHSR faculty member Dr. Erika Cheng, along with Drs. Nerissa Bauer and Steve Downs.

An estimated 80 million adults in the United States have low health literacy. Health literacy refers to an ability to obtain, process, and understand information about their health and about the services available to aid in making vital health decisions. Dr. Erika Cheng reasoned that statistically, many of these adults were probably also parents. Nearly 30% of US childcare providers have only a basic, or below basic, health literacy. As she described it, “Health literacy is a social determinant of health, so it made sense that if parents had low health literacy they might not be treating their children properly with health concerns like immunization schedules, errors in dosing, or asthma care.”

The study used past data collected by the CHSR-developed CHICA system, which was collected via questionnaires that assessed parent health literacy using questions such as ““Do you sometimes need to have someone help you when you read material from your doctor or pharmacy?” or “Do you have at least 10 children's books in your home?” Then, using data collected with CHICA during children’s visits to their pediatricians, Dr. Cheng was able to access a variety of different pediatric health risks such as secondhand smoke exposure and knowledge of child first-aid.

The study found several areas in which parental low health literacy had a direct effect on child health and safety: parent depression, child television viewing, which is directly linked to child obesity, and at-risk family behaviors that lead to child injury, including inadequate knowledge of first-aid.

Parent health literacy is important, according to Dr. Cheng, because of the way pediatricians and other healthcare professionals address families in the clinic. Doctors provide families with a lot of information, however they often aren’t trained to communicate effectively with parents with low health literacy. Dr. Cheng explains, “It’s important to communicate in ways that the patient understands and to give them information they need. There are a lot of details that parents might know to ask.”

The study was well-received by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It was published in the organization's journal Pediatrics (July 2016 issue), and featured on the AAP webpage. 

Cheng ER, Bauer NS, Downs SM. “Parent Health Literacy, Depression, and Risk for Pediatric Injury." Pediatrics 2016: 138(1).