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 2030 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
- Acknowledge that organizations have a responsibility to address health literacy
- Incorporate a public health perspective
From a public health perspective, the organizational definition acknowledges that health literacy is connected to health equity. Health equity is the attainment of the highest level of health for all people. We will achieve health equity when everyone has the opportunity to be as healthy as possible.
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 free 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 podcast.
Using health literacy best practices can build trust and advance health equity. Trust is an important part of a person’s willingness to engage in care and behaviors that promote health. In 2023, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine published proceedings from three workshops in a series titled The Roles of Trust and Health Literacy in Achieving Health Equity. Panelists discussed the relationship between health literacy and trust in clinical settings, public health institutions, and community settings. Key recommendations included
- using plain language
- using your audience’s preferred language and communication channels
- using culturally and linguistically appropriate language
For a historical perspective on the importance of health literacy, listen to a presentation from Dr. Rima Rudd. Dr. Rudd is a health literacy expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The title of her presentation is “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
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 Literacy are a good place to begin.
You can sign up for the Institute for Healthcare Advancement’s health literacy discussion communityto keep track of new developments in the field. You can also subscribe to CDC’s health literacy updates for tools, research, and best practices on communicating clearly.
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.