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

What is our role in promoting health literacy?

Health literacy is a common thread through all of our programs. A large portion of the people we serve are poor and medically underserved.

They need help understanding and navigating a complex health care system. They require culturally competent providers who speak their language so they can 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.

Reasons for a patient's low health literacy

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

Instances when 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

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

Health Literacy Terms & Definitions

Attitudes and behaviors, which are characteristic of a group or community.

Cultural Competence
A set of similar behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency, or among professionals that enables effective work in cross-cultural situations. 

Limited English Proficiency
Individuals who do not speak English as their primary language. They have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English and may be limited English proficient, or "LEP."

These individuals may be entitled language assistance with respect to a particular type or service, benefit, or encounter.

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. It helps to improve communication. And, it takes less time to read and understand.

Date Last Reviewed:  August 2019