Healthy People 2030 recognizes two components of health literacy, personal health literacy and organizational health literacy.
- Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
- Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
These definitions acknowledge that organizations have a responsibility to improve health literacy equitably and that health literacy depends on the context in which people operate.
And, they emphasize that the ultimate goal is for people to:
- Use health information rather than just understand it
- Make “well-informed” decisions rather than “appropriate” ones
What is our role in promoting health literacy?
Health literacy is a common thread through all of our programs.
To support staff and providers, HRSA’s Office of Health Equity, in coordination with other Bureaus and Offices, provides tailored training to health care professionals so that they can identify the specific health literacy levels of their patients and make simple communication changes.
Research has shown that health literacy can:
- Increase the use of preventive health care
- Lower unneeded emergency room visits
- Lower preventable stays in the hospital and readmissions
- Lower dosing errors
- Help patients better manage their chronic conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, and HIV/AIDS
- Improve health outcomes
- Enhance all six aims of quality improvement: safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient, and equitable
- Increase patient satisfaction
- Use clear signage in and directions to healthcare facilities that have been tested with patients
- Create and implement easy-to-navigate patient portals
- Use plain language health information available in commonly spoken languages that has been tested with your target audience for cultural sensitivity and reading level, so that people can understand the first time they read it
- Recruit bilingual staff and qualified interpreters for patients with a language preference other than English
- Provide forms and educational materials in languages other than English that have been tested with patients
- Use simple forms that are easy to complete
- Set up telephone systems that are patient-friendly
- Provide clear directions for taking medication
- Take a universal precautions approach—that is, assume that everyone may have difficulty understanding. Even highly educated people may have difficulty, especially if they are sick, scared, or tired
- Use jargon-free, everyday language, speaking slow and using short sentences
- Supplement instruction with materials that aid learning, such as videos, models, and pictures
- Confirm patients understand you by asking them to explain your instructions in their own words (teach back method) or demonstrate a procedure, or how they will take their medicine
- Ask open-ended questions that begin with “how” and “why” and listen to patients’ stories without interrupting for a full minute
- Encourage questions by creating the expectation that patients will have questions
- Limit information to what patients need to know, emphasizing and repeating the most important points
- Offer assistance with completing forms
- Toolkit: Health Literacy Universal Precautions (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality)
- Toolkit: Rural Health Literacy (Rural Health Information Hub)
- Best Practice Guide: Telehealth Training and Workforce Development (Health Resources and Services Administration)
- Repository: Roundtable on Health Literacy (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine)