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H H S Department of Health and Human Services
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Health Resources and Services Administration

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About Health Literacy

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions and services needed to prevent or treat illness.

Low health literacy is more prevalent among:

  • Older adults
  • Minority populations
  • Those who have low socioeconomic status
  • Medically underserved people

Patients with low health literacy may have difficulty:

  • Locating providers and services
  • Filling out complex health forms
  • Sharing their medical history with providers
  • Seeking preventive health care
  • Knowing the connection between risky behaviors and health
  • Managing chronic health conditions
  • Understanding directions on medicine

Health Literacy is especially important to HRSA and the people we serve. It is a common thread through all HRSA's programs from HIV/AIDS, to maternal and child health, to rural health, to organ transplantation. A large portion of the people HRSA serves are poor and medically underserved, who need help understanding and navigating a complex health care system. They require culturally competent providers who speak their language in order to make informed health care choices.

A number of patients may be confused with certain medical language, have difficulty understanding English, struggle with filling out forms, or have limited access to health providers in their community. With the proper training, health care professionals can identify patients' specific health literacy levels and make simple communication adjustments.

Patients’ health literacy may be affected if they have:

  • Health care providers who use words that patients don’t understand
  • Low educational skills
  • Cultural barriers to health care
  • Limited English Proficiency (LEP)

How health care professionals can help:

  • Identify patients with limited literacy levels
  • Use simple language, short sentences and define technical terms
  • Supplement instruction with appropriate materials (videos, models, pictures, etc.)
  • Ask patients to explain your instructions (teach back method) or demonstrate the procedure
  • Ask questions that begin with “how” and “what,” rather than closed-ended yes/no questions
  • Organize information so that the most important points stand out and repeat this information
  • Reflect the age, cultural, ethnic and racial diversity of patients
  • For Limited English Proficiency (LEP) patients, provide information in their primary language
  • Improve the physical environment by using lots of universal symbols
  • Offer assistance with completing forms