Health Literacy: What Is It, and Why Is It important?

doctor-899037_1280“Finding the Right Words for Better Health,” reads the motto for Health Literacy Month, which is held throughout October. In 1999, Helen Osborne, a licensed occupational therapist, consultant, speaker, author, and podcaster, initiated this cause to create worldwide awareness about the importance of both understanding and effectively communicating health information.

The theme for Health Literacy Month 2015 is “Be a Health Literacy Hero,” which is about people (individuals, teams, or even organizations) recognizing problems in health literacy and taking action to discover ways to improve health communication.

What is Health Literacy?

Health literacy is the level to which an individual is capable of accessing, understanding, and communicating basic health information and services to make smart decisions concerning his or her wellbeing.

Outcomes of good health literacy skills include things like people taking preventative action regarding their health. For example, research shows that people with limited health literacy skills are more likely to skip preventative care, such as getting pap smears, mammograms, and flu shots. Studies also reveal that those with limited health literacy have higher rates of hospitalization and use emergency services more often than those with adequate health literacy.

How Do Americans Rate?

In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy was conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to measure the health literacy of adults in America. The results revealed that the majority of adults (about 53%) were reported to have intermediate health literacy, while 22% had basic and 14% had below basic health literacy.

As with many education metrics, there are a number of variables that affect health literacy skills: a person’s level of education and income, age, race, where adults obtain information about health issues, and their health insurance coverage. For example, the NCES identified that adults who had basic and below basic health literacy were more likely to get information about health matters from radio and television rather than obtaining it from written sources such as newspapers, books, brochures, or the Internet, which is primarily where adults with higher health literacy obtained their information.

Even when health information is obtained from the best sources, research affirms that about 9 out of 10 adults still have trouble understanding that health information. It takes more than literacy skills to comprehend the material, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It also takes mathematical skills, which an individual must have to understand such things as measuring medication and evaluating nutrition labels. Another example where math skills are important is if someone has diabetes and needs to know how to calculate blood sugar levels.

What’s Being Done to Improve Health Literacy?

Public health professionals, healthcare entities, and public health systems are responsible for effectively communicating health information, according to HHS.

In 2010, HHS instituted the “National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy.” The tenets of this plan were two-fold: (1) that “everyone has the right to health information that helps them make informed decisions” and that (2) “health services should be delivered in ways that are understandable and beneficial to health, longevity, and quality of life.”

The plan outlines 7 goals and provides a framework for various health sectors such as policymakers, health organizations, professionals, communities, and individuals to use and actively improve health literacy. To learn more, you can visit

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine is another source for noteworthy efforts for health literacy improvement. For example, the Institute of Medicine regularly holds roundtables on health literacy. To find more information about these activities, please visit

Why Does It Matter to You?

The best approach to good health is acquiring better health literacy skills and cultivating an attitude of lifelong learning to keep up with constant advances in medicine. If not for Health Literacy Month, how would anyone know they are able to be a “Health Literacy Hero?” You’ve already taken the first step toward becoming more informed by reading this post; now, to become more informed or to help others learn about the importance of health literacy, you can follow the links below:

Additional Websites about Health Literacy


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011, April 11). National action plan to improve health literacy. CDC. Retrieved from

Health Literacy Consulting. (2015). About. Health Literacy Consulting. Retrieved from

Kutner, M., Greenberg, E., Jin, Y., & Paulsen, C. (2006, September 6). Health literacy of America’s adults: Results from the 2003 national assessment of adult literacy. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from

National Academy of Sciences. (2015, August 28). Activity: Roundtable on health literacy. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Retrieved from

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2015, August 31). Health literacy. Retrieved from

Osborne, H. (2015). About us. Health Literacy Month: October 1-31. Retrieved from

Translate »