The Importance of Health Literacy

Dominika Murphy

by Dominika Murphy, MPH, CHES
Community Director of SurroundHealth
Twitter @DominikaMPH

What is Health Literacy?
It seems that health literacy has become somewhat of a buzzword lately. Quite a few people are using the term, but few seem to know the real meaning. Health literacy is a lot more than someone’s ability to read. It requires many different skills including analytical, decision-making, reading and listening skills. More importantly, it requires the ability to apply these skills to different health decisions and experiences.

As defined in the Institute of Medicine report, Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion, health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” As our health care system has become more disjointed and difficult to navigate, it has become more difficult for patients to make informed health related decisions.

Imagine this. You are a successful Vice President at an agency in the city, and were just recently diagnosed with cancer. Although you’re well educated, all of a sudden you’re forced to learn terms such as neuroblastoma, chemotherapy and many others, in addition to trying to make treatment decisions about lifesaving treatments, and while trying to navigate the healthcare system. Scary.

Health Literacy in the US
Unfortunately this is a common occurrence since your level of education does not guarantee that you will have the necessary health literacy skills.  According to The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), only 12% of the population has a proficient health literacy level. According to the NAAL, approximately 36% of adults in the United States have limited health literacy-22% have Basic and 14% have Below Basic health literacy. An additional 5% of the population is not literate in English.

Tips for Health Professionals
Having limited time to spend with patients that most health professionals do today, you might ask how can I make a difference? There are some wonderful resources out there to help you make small changes that won’t take any more time.  I have listed a few of them here:

  1. Change how you communicate with your patients.
    The Ask-Educate- Ask approach is a new method that combines Teach-back & Motivational interviewing. Learn more about it here.
  2. Treat everyone equally.
    Health literacy universal precautions encourages healthcare providers to educate their patients using less complex medical terminology.
  3. Even just coming into your office may create more of a barrier than you may realize. Try to approach your practice with a low-literacy patient in mind.

Interested in learning more?
Be sure to check out SurroundHealth’s Health Literacy section for articles, webinars, and other great health literacy resources.


6 thoughts on “The Importance of Health Literacy

  1. Pingback: Informacio – a Modern, Touchscreen-Enabled Healthcare Workstation innovating health literacy | Design Research Portal – #DRP

  2. I have learned a lot about health literacy through your blog. It was a wonderful experience. You showed us the importance of health literacy. I think it really helps in treating patients better.

  3. Pingback: healthcare disparities – doctorgladstone

  4. Pingback: Doctors are telling, but patients aren’t hearing | getbetterhealthcare

  5. A related resource, patient inform, provides research summaries, news reports or other online analyses to place special links on their sites to the associated research articles in participating journals.
    The participating health organizations and what they provide may be found at

    Free summaries of Cochrane Reviews may be found at The reviews themselves are well researched articles focused on the strongest evidence available about healthcare interventions (as drugs, medical tests, and medical procedures).

    I’ve created a short list of links on how to read a research paper for those times when one cannot find a good summary.
    (Sorry the URL is so long!!)

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