Health Literacy: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

illustration of woman speaking to doctor

Your kids are happily playing with toys in the pediatrician’s waiting room while you pass the time sipping coffee and paging through magazines. You open up one health magazine to find the term “health literacy” jumping out at you from the glossy pages.

That certainly piques your curiosity! You’ve never heard the term before, but it sounds like something you should be aware of. After all, you’re a dedicated parent who’s always on the lookout for ways to keep your kids and yourself healthy.

So, what is health literacy? Although the phrase might be new to you, the idea behind it has an important impact on your health and wellness. We rounded up all the information you need to understand health literacy and to take control of your and your family’s well-being.

What is health literacy?

The official definition of health literacy is an individual’s ability to “obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).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 decisions about your health.

“Simply put, health literacy is how we receive, interpret and act on health information,” says Akeia Blue, health communications consultant at Be Health Literate. “Being health literate allows us to make the best decisions regarding our health.”

Health literacy extends beyond the patient themselves. “It is the ability of patients, caregivers, family members and the public to understand what doctors and other health care providers are communicating,” says Deann Jepson, senior program director at Advocates for Human Potential.

Health literacy is an essential skillset for anyone who interacts with the medical community. And since we’re each responsible for taking care of our physical and mental health, health literacy is a necessary tool for everyone.

The importance of health literacy

You might think health literacy doesn’t matter—after all, isn’t it your doctor’s job to make healthcare decisions for you? But the truth is that healthcare decisions need to be collaborative. And if there are barriers to communication, that collaborative ability breaks down.

Health literacy skills allow patients to take control of their own well-being by making smart healthcare choices, improving their communication with doctors and giving them the information they need to advocate for themselves in a medical setting. Without health literacy, patients can suffer real consequences.

“The reality is that 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,” Jepson says.

A lack of health literacy can have consequences on both a patient’s personal health and the nation as a whole. On an individual level, “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 says.

From a public health perspective, reduced health literacy can lead to widespread consequences. “Low health literacy is also costly for the country 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,” Blue says.

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.

“Unfortunately, up to 9 out of 10 adults can have limited health literacy, and this can be fluid,” Blue says. “It can be more challenging to be health literate when we are sick or in pain, so even someone who normally has a high level of health literacy may struggle at times to understand and process health information.”

Many healthcare facilities have adopted programs or systems designed to improve their patients’ health literacy. The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy encourages alternate forms of communication, such as using simplified language and videos to share information with patients. It also outlines a “universal precautions approach,” which encourages healthcare professionals to assume all patients have a limited understanding of the procedures and information being relayed to them—this levels the field and helps ensure all patients are receiving easy-to-understand information.

Jepson agrees that plain, simple communication is the key to unlocking health literacy for everyone. “When people receive accurate, easy-to-understand information, they are better equipped to take care of their health and wellness,” she says.

Practical steps to prioritize your health literacy

Those programs are helpful for improving health literacy on a national scale, but there are also steps you can take to make health literacy a priority in your everyday life.

Blue offers several strategies patients can use, such as writing down any questions or concerns they have for providers ahead of their appointment and recording the appointment or taking notes so they can easily refer back to their doctor’s instructions.

She also emphasizes that patients don’t have to be on their own if they feel intimidated about a doctor’s appointment. “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.

Ultimately, you want to leave every medical encounter feeling informed and confident about any diagnosis, medications or other instructions your doctor gave you. “Another good strategy is to repeat all information back to your healthcare provider, in your own words, to make sure that you understand,” Blue says. This gives them the opportunity to correct any miscommunications on the spot so you can feel prepared to take charge of your health after the appointment and beyond.

Take charge of your health and wellness

What is health literacy? Now you know that this ability to understand and take action on medical instructions has an impact on individual and public health across the country.

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 public health initiatives and how they 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 October 2019] https://www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/index.html

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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