Health Literacy: What Is It and Why Is It Important?
Have you ever found yourself up late, feeling sick and searching online for home remedies? If yes, you know the difficulties in navigating medical information. Even a regular check-up at your clinic can mean sifting through a variety of terminology surrounding a new diagnosis or medication. The reality is that healthcare and medicine are complex fields, with new research and protocols being added every day. Doctors and nurses with the best training and excellent communication skills can easily overload a patient who lacks experience and perspective when it comes to disease, prognosis and treatment.
That’s because the expertise medical providers offer is ideally paired with patients who are prepared and empowered when it comes to their health. This is where the concept of “health literacy” enters the picture.
What is health literacy?
“Simply put, health literacy is how we receive, interpret and act on health information,” says Akeia Blue, health communications consultant at Be Health Literate.
Blue offers some examples of how health literacy skills apply to real-world situations.
“A person may not understand essential things such as how and when to take a prescribed medication, how to know when it is appropriate to go to the emergency room rather than a primary care doctor or how to explain signs and symptoms they are experiencing,” Blue explains.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially defines health literacy as the ability to “obtain, communicate, process and understand basic health information and services.”1 Just like reading literacy gives you skills to understand and use written information, health literacy refers to the skills you need to understand and make good decisions about your health.
But these skills aren’t just important on an individual level. Parents, caregivers and many others are tasked with medical decision-making that goes beyond their own personal concerns. Organizations must also make health literate choices, says Beth Hoffman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.
Hoffman cites the Healthy People 2030 initiative from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as key in shaping broader institutional perspectives.
“Healthy People 2030 defines organizational health literacy as the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to be health literate,” Hoffman explains.
The importance of health literacy
You might ask the question: isn’t it the doctor’s job to make healthcare decisions? But the most effective healthcare decisions are collaborative. When there are communication barriers, that collaborative ability breaks down.
“Everyone needs health literacy skills to successfully find and access care, prevent certain health conditions, effectively manage those that occur, communicate their needs, understand their choices and make informed decisions,” says Deann Jepson, senior program director at Advocates for Human Potential.
Health literacy skills allow patients to take control of their own well-being by making smart healthcare choices, improving their communication with doctors and equipping them with information to advocate for themselves in a medical setting.
Health literacy during a global pandemic
A lack of health literacy can have consequences, not just on a patient’s personal health, but on the public’s health as a whole. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a clear example of how these skills have very high stakes.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the ways in which low levels of health literacy—due to systemic inequities—exacerbate health inequities experienced by people from minority and disadvantaged communities,” says Hoffman. “For example, many people found themselves having to navigate telemedicine appointments for the first time or trying to find credible online resources to get information about COVID-19 vaccines.”
Hoffman also cites the difficulties many faced in signing up online for vaccination appointments as evidence for needing a greater understanding of telemedicine and digital health literacy.
“That was difficult, for even the most health-literate people,” Hoffman says.
From a public health perspective, reduced health literacy can lead to widespread consequences, even in non-emergency situations.
“Low health literacy is also costly for the country,” Blue says. “Because when people don't understand health information and instructions, they are more likely to have worse health outcomes and unnecessarily use emergency room services.”
How to improve health literacy
Experts agree that health literacy is vital to reducing healthcare costs and improving public health. The path to improving health literacy isn’t always straightforward, however. One basic reason for this? Sick people are, by definition, not performing at their best.
“It can be more challenging to be health literate when we are sick or in pain,” Blue explains. “So even someone who normally has a high level of health literacy may struggle at times to understand and process health information.”
The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy recommends healthcare professionals use the “Universal Precautions Approach.” This approach assumes all patients have a limited understanding of the procedures and information, requiring professionals to provide clear explanations and instructions using simplified language and videos.
“When people receive accurate, easy-to-understand information, they are better equipped to take care of their health and wellness,” Jepson says.
Hoffman believes building partnerships with existing community institutions, like libraries or faith organizations, is another effective way to promote health literacy
“We need to be teaching kids in schools, as well as making sure older adults have the tools they need to navigate our increasingly digital world,” Hoffman says.
Practical steps to improve your own health literacy
Community programs help improve health literacy nationally, but there are also steps you can take to make health literacy a priority.
“One of the best things to do is ask questions from trusted, reputable sources,” Hoffman says. Asking healthcare professionals questions during clinic visits is good practice in empowering yourself about your own health.
“If they don’t explain it in a way that you can understand, keep asking questions or get a second opinion, if possible,” Hoffman adds.
Blue suggests patients write down any questions or concerns you have for providers ahead of the appointment, as well as recording the appointment or taking notes so you can easily refer back to the doctor’s instructions.
“Another good strategy is to repeat all information back to your healthcare provider, in your own words, to make sure that you understand,” Blue advises. This gives the provider an opportunity to correct any miscommunications on the spot. This isn’t the time to put up a front of false confidence—speak up if you’re not quite following what they’re saying.
In addition, if you’re feeling intimidated about a doctor appointment or worried you might miss something, Blue suggests bringing support.
“It is also appropriate to bring a trusted person to the appointment to listen in,” Blue says. This could be a family member or friend, a home health nurse or a patient care coordinator.
Health literacy: Moving from individual health to community well-being
Once your eyes have been opened to the importance of health literacy, it might just permanently change the way you think about healthcare and the challenges facing those looking to improve health outcomes at a broader scale. Learn more about how public health initiatives affect you and your community in our article “What Is Community Health and Why Is It Important?”
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Literacy Basics [accessed December 2021] https://www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/index.html