What Is Health Literacy?

The definition of health literacy was updated in August 2020 with the release of the U.S. government’s Healthy People 2030external icon initiative. The update addresses personal health literacy and organizational health literacy and provides the following definitions:

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

These definitions are a change from the health literacy definition used in Healthy People 2010 and Healthy People 2020: “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

The new definitions:

  • Emphasize people’s ability to use health information rather than just understand it
  • Focus on the ability to make “well-informed” decisions rather than “appropriate” ones
  • Incorporate a public health perspective
  • Acknowledge that organizations have a responsibility to address health literacy

From a public health perspective, these definitions indicate that people and organizations can use their health literacy skills to improve the health of their communities and its members.

woman listening to podcast

Listen to the podcastexternal icon on the definition of health literacy.

Rationale and Process for New Health Literacy Definitions

In the March 2021 article, “Updating Health Literacy for Healthy People 2030: Defining Its Importance for a New Decade in Public Health,” Santana and colleagues provide the rationale and process for updating the definition of health literacy. You can download the article for freeexternal icon from the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice (JPHMP).

Two of Santana’s co-authors, Cindy Brach and Dushanka Kleinman, discuss the article in this JPHMP podcastexternal icon.

Why Is Health Literacy Important?

Listen to Dr. Rima Rudd, health literacy expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, address staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In her presentation, “Health Literacy Research Findings and Insights: Increasing Organizational Capacity for Shaping Public Health Messages,” she discusses the following:

  • ​The history of health literacy as a field of study
  • The impact of health literacy on health disparities
  • Barriers to and facilitators of personal and organizational change
  • Health literacy research evaluation

 

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Take action to improve health literacy

How Can Organizations, Communities, and Individuals Improve Health Literacy?

The resources on this site will help you learn about health literacy and what you, your organization, or community can do to improve it. The goals and strategies in the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacypdf iconexternal icon are a good place to begin.

You can sign up for the Institute of Healthcare Advancement’s health literacy listservexternal icon and keep track of new developments in the field. You can also subscribe to CDC’s weekly health literacy updates.

Businesses, educators, community leaders, government agencies, health insurers, healthcare providers, the media, and many other organizations and individuals all have a part to play in improving health literacy in our society.

 

Page last reviewed: May 19, 2021