Supportive Care in Cancer

, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp 649–657 | Cite as

What do radiation therapists know about health literacy and the strategies to improve it for patients? A qualitative study

  • Fiona Quinn
  • Sian K Smith
  • Haryana M Dhillon
  • Charles Gillham
  • Agnella CraigEmail author
Original Article



Low health literacy leads to poor knowledge and understanding of health information, delayed diagnosis, lower use of preventative medicines/health services, increased likelihood of hospitalisation, and increased patient anxiety. Effective communication facilitates patient understanding and helps patients to manage the adverse side-effects associated with treatment. It is not yet known whether radiation therapists in Ireland tailor their communication to match a patient’s health literacy level. The purpose of this research was to investigate radiation therapists’ knowledge and awareness of health literacy and perceptions of their role in supporting patients with low health literacy.


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with sixteen radiation therapists working in four radiotherapy departments in Ireland. Data were analysed using the framework approach.


Through discussions with participants, it was apparent that radiation therapists had limited knowledge of the concept of health literacy. Common themes arose from the interviews with four key themes identified:
  1. 1.

    Strategies used to identify patients’ health literacy

  2. 2.

    Perceived effect of low health literacy

  3. 3.

    Obstacles faced when addressing low health literacy

  4. 4.

    Recommendations to support lower health literacy groups



Currently, radiation therapists show some knowledge and awareness of health literacy, but an increased awareness of the prevalence of low health literacy and a structured approach to supporting patients would allow radiation therapists to more effectively communicate with patients, thus improving their treatment experience and reducing the risk of adverse outcomes.


Health literacy Radiation therapist Radiotherapy Patient education Cancer Qualitative research 


Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interests

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

520_2018_4353_MOESM1_ESM.docx (16 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 16 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Applied Radiation Therapy Trinity, Discipline of Radiation TherapyTrinity College DublinDublinIreland
  2. 2.Psychosocial Research Group, Faculty of Medicine, Prince of Wales Clinical School, Lowy Research CentreUNSWSydneyAustralia
  3. 3.Centre for Medical Psychology and Evidence-based Decision-making, School of PsychologyUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia
  4. 4.St Luke’s Radiation Oncology NetworkDublinIreland

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