Health Literacy

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
— Albert Einstein

What is health literacy? 

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, "health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions".

The term capacity used with this definition refers to the individual's "innate potential" and is perpetuated by educational status and acceptability is influence by "culture, language, and the characteristics of health-related settings" (Institute of Medicine, 2004). 

What does low health literacy cause? 

  • Shame

  • Doubt

  • Fear

  • Stigma

  • Stress

  • Poor management of disease

  • Medication Errors

  • Overuse of emergency rooms

  • Higher incidence (rate) of preventable diseases

Who does low health literacy affect?

Low health literacy can affect everyone. It can be an issue for your mother, your uncle and even you. It is nothing to be ashamed of or fear. Health care is complicated. There are a lot of big words and jargon that can be easily confused. Because it affects everyone, we feel it is important to help you take control of your health. 

Why is health literacy important? 

Everyday individuals are faces with life-changing decisions about their health. From the food we buy at the grocery store to the places we work and live. Less often our everyday health choices made with the consultation of a health care provider. People need information they can use in everyday situations so they can make informed decisions and be empowered to protect and promote their health.  Even individuals with high literacy (reading) and education may have difficulties understanding and using medical terms and complex processes. 

Nearly half of all American adults—90 million people—have difficulty understanding and acting upon health information.
— Institute of Medicine, 2004

What is a health disparity? 

As defined by the CDC, "health disparities are preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experiences by socially disadvantaged populations."  Populations can be broken down by race/ethnicity, gender, income, education, geographical location, disability, sexual orientation, and veteran status. 

To break the concept of health disparities down, you can simply think of this term as any preventable condition and/or situation that generally affects one population of people more than another. 

How does it contribute to health disparities and inequalities? 

Generally speaking, minorities have a higher risk of low health literacy and high health disparities. For example, there are more African- American people diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure, than any other racial group. This is considered a health disparity. It happens when one groups suffers from higher rates of certain diseases and deaths.

How do I know if my work is health literate? 

If you aren't sure if your work is health literate, here are some general rules: 

  • Use everyday words

  • If you are explaining a complicated process, use an everyday example

  • Identify and write for your audience

There are numerous online guides to created plain language articles and materials. They can be found on the following websites: