Understanding Health Literacy

Health Literacy Affects Everyone

Senior adult reading a pill bottle.

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

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 and protect our health, as well as better manage those problems and unexpected situations that happen.

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?

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

  • create and provide information and services people can understand and use most effectively with the skills they have. See Develop and Test Materials.
  • work with educators and others to help people become more familiar with health information and services and build their health literacy skills over time. See Collaborate.
  • build our own skills as communicators of health information. See Find Training for free, online options.

Reports and Evidence on Limited Health Literacy

People need information they can understand and use to make the best decisions for their health. “Limited health literacy” happens when people’s literacy and numeracy skills are poorly matched with the technical, complex, and unfamiliar information that organizations make available or health services are too complex and difficult to understand and use effectively.

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 Literacyexternal icon.

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)external icon. These results reinforce the findings of their 2006 report.

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

Search the National Library of Medicine’s PubMedexternal icon for the latest health literacy research.

Are Limited Health Literacy and Limited Literacy the Same Problem?

No, but they are related. People’s reading, writing and numbers skills are only a part of health literacy. People do need strong literacy and numeracy skills to make it easier to understand and use health information and services. But, research shows that many health and healthcare activities are unfamiliar, complicated, and technical to most people.

Learn More from Health Literacy Leaders

Listen to health literacy leaders describe their research and practice in podcastsexternal icon (Source: Helen Osborne 2014).


Page last reviewed: January 12, 2021