What is Health Literacy?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V, defines health literacy as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. This is also the definition that was included in Healthy People 2010 and 2020.

However, in Healthy People 2030external icon, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) updated the definition to include personal health literacy as well as organizational health literacy. HHS 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.

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

Why Is Health Literacy Important?

Dr. Rima Rudd, health literacy expert, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, addressed staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listen to her talk about the importance of personal health literacy, health-literate clinicians, and health-literate organizationspdf iconexternal icon.

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.

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: September 17, 2020