Health literacy is key to meeting the health needs of high need communities. Healthy People 2030 uses the following definitions of health literacy:
Personal health literacy is the degree to which people can 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 emphasize people’s ability to use health information rather than just understand it to make “well-informed” decisions about their health and the care they receive. They also recognize the importance of organizations addressing health literacy themselves – patients should not bear the burden on their own.
According to the 2016 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, 5% of U.S. adults aged 18 and older reported difficulties getting advice or information about health or medical topics if they need it; 7.5% reported difficulties understanding information that doctors, nurses, and other health professionals tell them; and 7.3% reported difficulties understanding written health information. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and Latino patients are disproportionately likely to report lower levels of health literacy, which has a direct impact on disparities in health outcomes.
Individuals who report lower levels of health literacy tend to have more hospitalizations, greater use of emergency care, lower rates of immunization and cancer screening, difficulties in comprehending health information and messages, limited knowledge of diseases, and lower medication adherence. All of these can contribute to higher risks of morbidity and mortality, increased costs, and health disparities.
HRSA’s Office of Health Equity provides tailored training to health care professionals so that they can identify the specific health literacy levels of their patients and make simple changes that can generate significant improvements. Some of these strategies include using clear signage and directions to health care facilities that have been tested with patients, recruiting bilingual staff and qualified interpreters for patients with a language preference other than English, and using simple forms that are easy to complete and telephone systems that are patient friendly. You can find more information about health literacy by visiting the Office of Health Equity’s webpage on health literacy.