Patient Care

Effects of Low-Literacy Asthma Action Plans on Provider Counseling


Clinical question: Can physician counseling for asthma care be improved by using low-literacy asthma action plans?

Background: Although asthma action plans are recommended for all children with asthma and have been associated with improved medication adherence, written asthma action plans are given to fewer than half of patients with asthma. Children with asthma whose parents have low health literacy have worse asthma-related outcomes; most asthma action plans do not use principles of health literacy. Researchers sought to investigate if asthma counseling was improved when providers were given a low-literacy asthma action plan versus a standard plan to structure their counseling.

Study design: Randomized controlled trial.

Setting: Two large, academic medical centers.

Synopsis: The study enrolled 126 physicians, of which 119 were randomized, with 61 counseling based on the low-literacy asthma action plan and 58 counseling based on a standard asthma action plan. There were no significant differences between the two groups of physicians in terms of age, gender, frequency in providing asthma care, confidence in asthma counseling, or training category (resident, fellow, attending).

These physicians counseled research assistants acting in the role of parents of children with moderate persistent asthma. The children were on a regimen of daily orally inhaled fluticasone and montelukast by mouth and as-needed albuterol. The low-literacy plan used photographs of medications, pictograms, and colors to delineate asthma severity and was prepopulated with the patient’s regimen. The standard plan was from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI); it required the physician to write in the names and doses of the patient’s medications and had no photos or pictograms. Counseling sessions were recorded and coded for content.

Using health literacy principles, the authors valued plain-language descriptions (e.g., “ribs show when breathing”) over jargon (e.g., “respiratory distress”) and specific times (e.g., “morning and night”) over times-per-day dosing (e.g., “two times a day”).

Physicians using the low-literacy plan were much more likely to use specific time of day rather than doses per day (odds ratio = 27.5; 95% CI, 6.1–123.4), much more likely to mention spacers (odds ratio = 6; 95% CI, 2.8–15), and much more likely to use plain-language descriptors of respiratory distress (odds ratio = 33; 95% CI, 7.4–147.5). These differences were present regardless of physicians’ stated comfort with asthma counseling or experience level. There was no significant difference in duration of counseling between the two plans. Physicians stated a preference for the low-literacy plan.

Bottom line: Use of low-literacy asthma action plans improves the quality of physician counseling for asthma.

Citation: Yin HS, Gupta RS, Tomopoulos S, et al. A low-literacy asthma action plan to improve provider asthma counseling: a randomized study. Pediatrics. 2016;137(1):1-11. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-0468.

Dr. Stubblefield

Dr. Stubblefield

Dr. Stubblefield is a pediatric hospitalist at Nemours/Alfred I. Dupont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., and assistant professor of pediatrics at Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.

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