Understanding Health Literacy

Health Literacy Affects Everyone

Health literacy is important for everyone because, at some point in our lives, we all need to be able to find, understand, and use health information and services.

Taking care of our health is part of everyday life, not just when we visit a doctor, clinic, or hospital. Health literacy can help us prevent health problems, protect our health, and better manage health problems when they arise.

Even people who read well and are comfortable using numbers can face health literacy issues when

  • They aren’t familiar with medical terms or how their bodies work.
  • They have to interpret statistics and evaluate risks and benefits that affect their health and safety.
  • They are diagnosed with a serious illness and are scared and confused.
  • They have health conditions that require complicated self-care.
  • They are voting on an issue affecting the community’s health and relying on unfamiliar technical information.

Why Do We Have a Health Literacy Problem?

Senior adult reading a pill bottle.

People need information they can understand and use to make the best decisions for their health.

When organizations or people create and give others health information that is too difficult for them to understand, we create a health literacy problem. When we expect them to figure out health services with many unfamiliar, confusing or even conflicting steps, we also create a health literacy problem.

How Can We Help People Now?

We can help people use the health literacy skills they have. How? We can do the following:

Reports and Evidence on Limited Health Literacy

Several reports document that limited health literacy affects many types of health conditions, diseases, situations, and outcomes, including health status and costs.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education published the only national data on health literacy skills. The study found that adults who self-report the worst health also have the most limited literacy, numeracy, and health literacy skills. See The Health Literacy Of America’s Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

The U.S. Department of Education subsequently published 2012/14 and 2017 results on self-reported health status of U.S. adults using data from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). These results reinforce the findings of their 2006 report.

European Union countries have found similar health literacy skill issues in the European Health Literacy Survey (Source: Maastricht University 2012).

The following two resources are regularly updated with health literacy research:

Are Limited Health Literacy and Limited Literacy the Same Problem?

Limited health literacy and limited literacy are not the same, but they are related. Strong literacy and numeracy skills do help people understand and use health information and services, but research shows that most people still say that information and services are unfamiliar, complicated, and too technical.

Learn More from Health Literacy Leaders

Listen to health literacy leaders describe their research and practice in podcasts (Source: Health Literacy Out Loud).