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

HRSA’s Role in Promoting Health Literacy

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

Key Definitions

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 serves as an advisory for program planners.

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. Access additional information on cultural competence from the Office of Minority Health.

Limited English Proficiency
Individuals who do not speak English as their primary language and who have a limited ability to read, speak, write, or understand English can 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, to the point, helps to improve communication and takes less time to read and understand.


Culture, Language, and Health Literacy

Roots of Health Inequity Course Exit disclaimer

Date Last Reviewed:  November 2017