Improving Health Literacy

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

The ability a person has to get medical information, understand that information, and put that information to use can have a profound impact on their health. Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "nine out of 10 adults struggle to understand and use health information when it is unfamiliar, complex, or jargon-filled."

Studies show that people with poor health literacy are more likely to:

  • misunderstand instructions about their prescription medications;
  • have poor comprehension of nutrition labels;
  • have a poor track record of preventative care; and
  • be hospitalized with bad disease outcomes.

Studies also show that improving health literacy could prevent nearly 1 million hospital visits and save billions in healthcare costs each year.

How can I improve my own health literacy?

  • Ask questions --- and make sure you get answers you can understand. Don't be afraid to ask someone to explain something they've told you more than once.
  • Repeat instructions back to your nurse, doctor, or pharmacist to make sure you understood them correctly.
  • Bring someone with you to your appointments.

How can I, as a healthcare provider, promote health literacy among my patients?

  • Use the teach-back method to confirm understanding:
    • Explain the health information
    • Check for understanding
    • Re-explain the health information if needed
  • Use plain language, familiar words, and short sentences in spoken and written communication.
  • Provide simple explanations for unfamiliar terms.
  • Be aware of, and sensitive to, cultural diversity. Make sure written materials are appropriate for the patient's language, culture, and reading level.
  • Use an interpreter if needed.