Health Literacy

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) addresses both personal health literacy and organizational health literacy in their new Health People 2030 definitions:

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

These definitions are a change from the health literacy definition used in Healthy People 2010 and Healthy People 2020: “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” The new definitions:

  • emphasize people’s ability to use health information rather than just understand it.
  • focus on the ability to make “well-informed” decisions rather than “appropriate” ones.
  • incorporate a public health perspective.
  • acknowledge that organizations have a responsibility to address health literacy.

Health literacy is a complex phenomenon that involves individuals, families, communities and systems. The concept of health literacy encompasses the materials, environments, and challenges specifically associated with disease prevention and health promotion.

Health literacy incorporates a range of abilities: reading, comprehending, and analyzing information; decoding instructions, symbols, charts, and diagrams; weighing risks and benefits; and, ultimately, making decisions and taking an action.

On this page you will find some key research findings and resources on health literacy.

Key Health Literacy Research Findings

  • We must not blame the individual for not understanding information that has not been made clear.
  • Everyone, no matter how educated, is at risk for misunderstanding health information if the topic is emotionally charged or complex.
  • In almost all cases, physicians and other health professionals try to, and believe they are, communicating accurate information.
  • In some cases, patients may believe they have understood directions but may be embarrassed to ask questions to confirm their understanding.
  • Health care organizations and their systems and procedures have a significant role to play in ensuring understanding in the health care setting.
  • It is increasingly difficult for people to separate evidence-based information, especially online, from misleading ads and gimmicks.
  • The communication of “risk” in an effective and fair way continues to be a challenge for both the provider and the patient.
  • There are additional challenges in understanding how to select insurance plans and benefits, especially for those who have not previously been insured.

Health Literacy Resources from NIH and Other HHS Agencies 

Health Care Community Resources

Training and Toolkits

This page last reviewed on February 17, 2021