The Department of Health and Human Services, in its Healthy People 2010 initiative, defines health literacy as, “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Healthy People 2020 outlines increasing health literacy skills as one of its objectives for improving the nation's health.
Low health literacy is a wide spread problem, affecting more than 90 million adults in the United States, where 43% of adults demonstrate only the most basic or below-basic levels of prose literacy. Low health literacy results in patients’ inadequate engagement in decisions regarding their health care and can hinder their ability to realize the benefits of health care advances. Research has linked low or limited health literacy with such adverse outcomes as poorer self-management of chronic diseases, fewer healthy behaviors, higher rates of hospitalizations, and overall poorer health outcomes.
Health literacy is a complex phenomenon that involves individuals, families, communities and systems. For instance, consumers, patients, caregivers, or other laypersons may vary with respect to:
- Access (e.g., to audience-appropriate information, media or professionals);
- Skills (e.g., to gather and comprehend health information; to speak and share personal information about health history and symptoms; to act on information by initiating appropriate follow-up visits and conveying understanding back to the information source; to make decisions about basic healthy behaviors, such as healthy eating and exercise; to engage in self-care and chronic disease management);
- Knowledge (e.g., of health and medical vocabulary, concepts such as “risk”, the organization and functioning of healthcare systems);
- Abilities (e.g., sensory, communication, cognitive or physical challenges or limitations);
- Features of health care providers and public health systems (e.g., the communication skills of health professionals, platforms employed for patient education, built environments and signage);
- Demographics (e.g., developmental or life stage, cultural, linguistic or educational differences that affect health beliefs, knowledge and communication)
On December 15, 2008, a one-day meeting was convened to provide a venue for NIH-funded scientists conducting health literacy research to discuss lessons learned and to be learned on a variety of health literacy-related topics. For more information, click here