What is Health Literacy?

Focus: Health Education

What does health literacy really mean? Health literacy is the ability of an individual to collect, process and comprehend basic health information and to make relevant and appropriate decisions about health behaviors. The degree to which an individual is able to do this accurately is what determines their health literacy level [1].

Contradictory to popular belief, health literacy knows no borders and affects people from all backgrounds, education levels, and socioeconomic statuses [2]. According to the Center for Health Care Strategies: people of all ages, races, incomes, and education levels-not just people with limited reading skills or people for whom English is a second language-are affected by limited health literacy [2]. Research from the United States Department of Education found that twelve (12) percent of English-speaking adults in the US “have proficient health literacy levels” [3].

A study released by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) found that a negative relationship exists between limited health literacy and “the use of preventive services (e.g. mammograms or flu shots), management of chronic conditions (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and HIV/AIDS), and self-reported health” [3].

1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2010 (2nd ed.) Washington, DC, 2000.
2. Center for Health Care Strategies, Inc. What is Health Literacy-Fact Sheet. www.chcs.org.
3. National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.