Attributes of a Health Literate Organization
Be an Organization that Advances Health Literacy
The white paper, “Ten Attributes of Health Literate Health Care Organizations [433 KB, 27 pages]” describes what healthcare organizations can do to lower barriers for people to get and use health information and services. Participants of the Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Health Literacy wrote the paper to inspire healthcare organizations to address health literacy issues.
The Office of the Associate Director for Communication (OADC) has interpreted the attributes and offers a modified version to apply to organizations doing public health work. Each attribute includes a brief elaboration and strategies organizations can work on.
Public health organizations and their partners, as well as clinical care groups, may find the resources listed at the bottom of the page to be relevant. The small number of resources shows that much work needs to be done to help organizations address health literacy issues for all groups they serve.
If you’re involved only in direct patient care, please refer to the original paper. Also, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality may have helpful information for you.
Attributes about Leadership, Priorities, Training, Access, and Special Situations
- Has leadership that makes health literacy integral to its mission, structure, and operations
The organization makes advancing health literacy a high priority and part of the organizational values, culture, and day-to-day operations. Committed, continuous, knowledgeable leadership is key to effectively implement and sustain health literacy improvement activities.
- Integrates health literacy into strategic and operational planning, quality improvement, goals, and measures
The organization makes sure that health literacy is explicitly integrated into all relevant activities, and that health literacy informs both strategic and operational planning, execution, and evaluation. The organization assesses success with vulnerable populations as part of its overall organizational performance measures.
- Prepares the workforce to address health literacy issues and monitors progress
The organization recognizes and meets staff health literacy training needs. The training contributes to a culture in which everyone values and promotes effective communication. The organization measures the training’s impact on advancing health literacy and other goals.
- Provides easy access to health information and services and help finding the way in facilities
The organization uses techniques to make it easy for people to find information in facilities, such as health departments, clinics, and social service agencies, and on Web sites and other communication channels. Help finding the way in facilities can mean providing clear signs, directions, forms, and helpful staff who provide information in plain language.
Best practices in Web design and social media communication help the organization make its electronic materials, messages, and systems, such as patient portals or online databases, easy for people to find, understand, and use.
If the organization provides telephone-based information or services, such as appointment scheduling or toll-free information lines, it can make sure staff use plain language when talking with the public.
- Addresses health literacy in high-risk situations, such as emergency preparedness, crisis and emergency response, and clinical emergencies or transitions.
The organization puts processes in place to make sure that people receive clear and useful communication when they are at their most vulnerable or under emotional or physical stress. Planning for emergencies, crises and stressful transitions anticipates the audience’s health literacy issues and prepares for the types of basic information and services people will need to respond to high-risk situations.
- Communicates clearly available health services and costs
The organization uses clear communication techniques to explain a person’s choices among health services and the costs, if relevant, for each service. If a person must complete forms to receive services, the forms are in plain language with information design techniques that make it easy to understand and complete the forms.
Attributes about Audience and Group Participation and Feedback in Health Communication and Information Activities
- Includes members of groups served in the design, implementation, and evaluation of health information and services
The organization invites members of the groups it serves to be part of the processes that result in health information and services. It pays special attention to including people with limited literacy and numeracy skills when planning programs and preparing materials.
- Meets the needs of audiences with a range of health literacy skills while avoiding stigmatization
The organization makes information and communication clear and culturally and linguistically appropriate for all audiences. It uses audience feedback to verify comprehension and information usefulness. The organization selects formats and channels with the greatest reach for the intended audience. Staff don’t demean, criticize, or call negative attention to people with limited literacy and numeracy skills.
- Uses health literacy strategies in oral communication
The organization uses clear communication techniques in spoken communication, such as conversations, interviews, oral presentations, and podcasts and videos. It reinforces spoken information and communication with other formats that help people remember the information and learn how to find more information when they need it. The organization uses various audience feedback methods to verify comprehension and information usefulness.
- Designs and distributes print, audiovisual, and social media content that is easy to understand and act on
The organization asks the intended users of the information and communication to contribute to all steps of the content process. It uses multiple channels for information and communication so that people can use their preferred channels as well as be exposed to the information multiple times to help learning and recall. The materials have a clear message and actions the audience can take to protect and promote their health. The materials use words, numbers and concepts familiar to the intended audience.
Resources for Organizations
General Assessment Tools
- Pharmacy Health Literacy Assessment Tool (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2007)
- AHRQ Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, 2010)
- The Health Literacy Environment of Hospitals and Health Centers – Partners for Action: Making Your Healthcare Facility Literacy-Friendly (Harvard School of Public Health, 2006)
- Building Health Literate Organizations: A Guidebook to Achieving Organizational Change (Unity Point Health, 2014)
Train the workforce
See our Find Training page for training opportunities in health literacy, plain language, and culture and communication
Develop materials that are easy to understand and act on
- Federal Plain Language Guidelines (The Plain Language Action and Information Network)
- Full Index Score Sheet [694 KB, 7 pages] (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
See our Develop Materials section for additional guidance and resources for preparing materials to address health literacy
Meet the needs of audiences with a range of health literacy skills
- AHRQ Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality 2010)
- National Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) Standards ( HHS Office of Minority Health) can help organizations address the cultural and language differences between the people who provide information and services and the people they serve.
- Questions are the Answer (Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality 2009)
Provide easy access to health information and services
See the resources below for information about accessible and usable health information (IT), including Web sites.
- Accessible Health Information Technology (IT) for Populations with Limited Literacy: A Guide for Developers and Purchasers of Health IT (HHS AHRQ National Resource Center for Health IT 2007)
- NIH National Library of Medicine Evidence-based Practice and Health Technology Assessment Links to Resources (NIH National Library of Medicine 2011)
- Federal usability information
See the resources below for information on how to improve the readability of consent forms and other print materials for health care research study participants.
- Program for Readability in Science & Medicine (PRISM) (Group Health Research Institute)
- AHRQ Informed Consent and Authorization Toolkit for Minimal Risk Research (HHS Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality 2009)
See Evaluate Skills & Programs for assessment tools to identify health literacy issues in your organization.
Communicate clearly during crises and emergencies
- Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Crisis and Emergency Risk Messaging in Mass Media News Stories: Is the Public Getting the Information They Need to Protect Their Health?
- Page last reviewed: December 19, 2016
- Page last updated: December 19, 2016
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