What health literacy is and why we should care

Understanding health information can have a great impact on our health outcomes and the overall cost of healthcare.

Michigan State University Extension has found that studies consistently show a significant number of people have problems reading, un­derstanding and acting on health information. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. For one thing, health information is complex, and healthcare providers are not necessar­ily skilled communicators. In addition, patients bring a wide range of learning needs to the healthcare experience. Basic literacy skills, language, age, disability, cultural context, and emotional responses can all affect the way people receive and process information — and the way people process information, in turn, has a direct impact on their health outcomes and the ultimate cost.

Health literacy is defined by the World Health Organization as “…the cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to, understand, and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health.” Health literacy is not only one’s ability to understand health messages as they are presented, but refers to a person’s interest in learning information that can have a bearing on his or her health. It involves that person’s ability to find needed information and to act upon it.

This process doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The system in which the person operates also has a bearing on his or her success. It includes the availability of print information and whether it is written clearly. It also involves the healthcare providers with whom a person interacts and how well they are able to convey health messages. Healthcare and insurance systems and the media also play a role. All convey health messages.

Those who are more likely to experience low health literacy are older adults, racial and ethnic minorities, people with less than a high school diploma or GED, people with low income levels, non-native speakers of English and people with compromised health status, such as those with chronic health conditions. Culture and access to resources also affect people’s health literacy.

Low literacy has been linked to poor health outcomes such as higher rates of hospitalization and less frequent use of preventive services. People who lack health literacy have inadequate or inaccurate knowledge of their condition and its treatment. They may have poor self-care skills, which affects medication use, monitoring, and the use of devices. This may translate to non-adherence with instructions, medication errors, and adverse events. It can also mean the use of costly urgent care services as well as unscheduled visits, inappropriate use of emergency rooms, more hospitalizations and ultimately poorer health outcomes. According to the report, Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy, this equates to a $200 billion problem for the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, we must work together to ensure that health information and services can be understood and used by all Americans. Everyone can play a part, including those involved with adult education, healthcare professionals, those in the arena of public health, patients, caregivers, community members, the media, and others. We all have a role to play in supporting health literacy for Americans.

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