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Health Literacy 101

"As clinicians, what we say does not matter unless our patients are able to understand the information we give them well enough to use it to make good health-care decisions. Otherwise, we didn’t reach them, and that is the same as if we didn’t treat them."

-Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA, Former US Surgeon General, 2010

Male doctor reviewing chart with male patient

Have you or a loved one ever left an appointment with questions that you wished you had asked? Ever gotten a prescription that you weren't quite sure what it was for or why or how you should take it? Ever passed on getting a medical test that was recommended for you because you didn't think it was important? These situations occur more often than you may think and are often the direct result of poor patient-provider communication. The good news is that the culture of healthcare is moving toward a more patient centered model, which means that as things change, people can feel more empowered to become partners and decision makers in their healthcare. In order for this shift in attitude to be successful, we all have to increase our health literacy skills.

What is Health Literacy?

The Healthy People 2010 goals define Health Literacy as "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions." In it's simplest definition, Health Literacy to me means: How a person receives, interprets and is able to act on health information. Proficient health literacy is being able to understand and interpret a complex document such as a health insurance cost table. Below basic health literacy is difficulty reading a chart or simple instructions.

We receive health information almost everyday of our lives; whether it's a commercial for a medication on TV, an ad that pops up on Facebook, or an article we read in a magazine. It is important that we receive this information in a way that allows us to make informed decisions.


Why does it matter?

Poor health literacy is well documented to have a negative affect on people's health. It can show up in many different ways, including causing difficulty understanding food labels, explaining symptoms to a doctor, understanding instructions on a prescription and following self care instructions. Here are some quick facts just to give you an idea of how serious the problem is:

  • 14% of American adults do not have basic literacy skills and the average grade reading level in the US is 7th grade.

  • Only 12% of people studied were proficient in health literacy, while 9 out of 10 people had limited health literacy

  • Adults with below basic health literacy are 42% more likely to report poor health than those who are proficient in health literacy.

  • Adults with limited health literacy are more likely to have uncontrolled chronic disease, not partake in preventative care and/or tests and be admitted to the hospital unnecessarily.

  • It is estimated that limited health literacy costs the US between $106 and $236 BILLION dollars each year.


Who does it affect?

Everyone can be affected by limited health literacy at a point in their lives, even if they are normally proficient. There are, however, certain groups of people who may be affected more often than others. These groups include:

  • Adults older than 65 years

  • People who are not White

  • Recent refugees and immigrants to the country

  • People who have not received a High School diploma or GED

  • People who have an income below the poverty level

  • People whose first language is not English

It is so important to understand how limited health literacy skills can affect each of us. It is even more important to understand how it can affect those we care about who may need extra help communicating with their providers.

Reference: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2010). National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. Washington, DC: Author.


What does Health Literacy mean to you? Have you ever experienced a poor health communication moment? Drop a comment below. If this was helpful, please share this with your family, friends and colleagues. Subscribe so you never miss an update.

"Improving our health literacy so that we all may live healthier, more abundant lives."

#Literacy #Healthliteracy #Healthcommunication #Doctor #Healthcare #PublicHealth #advocacy

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