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Health Literacy: What is Health Literacy?

Resources for understanding health literacy best practices.


What is Health Literacy?

“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.”

"Health literacy is the use of a wide range of skills that improve the ability of people to act on information in order to live healthier lives. These skills include reading, writing, listening, speaking, numeracy, and critical analysis, as well as communication and interaction skills.”

“the constellation of skills, including the ability to perform basic reading and numerical tasks required to function in the health care environment,” including “the ability to read and comprehend prescription bottles, appointment slips, and other essential health-related materials.”

"These definitions present health literacy as a set of individual capacities that allow the person to acquire and use new information."
(Baker, D [2006] The Meaning and the Measure of Health Literacy. J Gen Intern Med 21(8): 878–883. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1497.2006.00540.x)

We don’t take information as seriously as we should in healthcare. Words can be as important as drugs. We should be prescribing good information.    - Rima Rudd

Who is affected by low Health Literacy?

Everyone can struggle with health literacy, even those who are well educated. The ability to understand and use health information can be affected by emotional status, worry, sleep deprivation or unfamiliar topics. Use a universal approach to health literacy and communicate to everyone, every time, with health literacy principles in mind.

Why does Health Literacy matter?

Patients or families with low health literacy:

  • have longer and more frequent hospitalizations
  • use the ER to manage health more often
  • make more medication errors
  • have poorer health outcomes
  • face increasing health care costs

All patients and families need health information that is clear and helps them understand what they need to know and do.

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