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H H S Department of Health and Human Services
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Health Resources and Services Administration

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Health Literacy

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.

Low health literacy is more prevalent among:

  • Older adults
  • Minority populations
  • Those who have low socioeconomic status
  • Medically underserved people

Patients with low health literacy may have difficulty:

  • Locating providers and services
  • Filling out complex health forms
  • Sharing their medical history with providers
  • Seeking preventive health care
  • Knowing the connection between risky behaviors and health
  • Managing chronic health conditions
  • Understanding directions on medicine

Health Literacy is especially important to HRSA and the people we serve. It is a common thread through all HRSA's programs from HIV/AIDS, to maternal and child health, to rural health, to organ transplantation. A large portion of the people HRSA serves are poor and medically underserved, who need help understanding and navigating a complex health care system. They require culturally competent providers who speak their language in order to make informed health care choices.

A number of patients may be confused with certain medical language, have difficulty understanding English, struggle with filling out forms, or have limited access to health providers in their community. With the proper training, health care professionals can identify patients' specific health literacy levels and make simple communication adjustments.

Patients’ health literacy may be affected if they have:

  • Health care providers who use words that patients don’t understand
  • Low educational skills
  • Cultural barriers to health care
  • Limited English Proficiency (LEP)

How health care professionals can help:

  • Identify patients with limited literacy levels
  • Use simple language, short sentences and define technical terms
  • Supplement instruction with appropriate materials (videos, models, pictures, etc.)
  • Ask patients to explain your instructions (teach back method) or demonstrate the procedure
  • Ask questions that begin with “how” and “what,” rather than closed-ended yes/no questions
  • Organize information so that the most important points stand out and repeat this information
  • Reflect the age, cultural, ethnic and racial diversity of patients
  • For Limited English Proficiency (LEP) patients, provide information in their primary language
  • Improve the physical environment by using lots of universal symbols
  • Offer assistance with completing forms

Collecting Culturally- and Linguistically-Specific Patient Data. Under the Affordable Care Act, to the extent practicable, federal health data collections will include culturally- and linguistically-specific data on populations served. Guidance and tools have yet to be developed. This information is included as an advisory for program planners.

Culture. Attitudes and behaviors that are characteristic of a group or community. Learn more: What is Cultural Competence? (Office of Minority Health)

Cultural Competence. A set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations. What is Cultural Competence? (Office of Minority Health)

Limited English Proficiency
TeamSTEPPS: This evidence-based module will provide insight into the core concepts of teamwork as they are applied to your work with patients who have difficulty communicating in English.

Health Literacy
The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.

Plain Language
Writing that is clear and to the point, which helps to improve communication and takes less time to read and understand.

Essential Tools