Topic updated: September 2012

Health Literacy

What is Health Literacy?

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V, defines health literacy as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. This definition is almost identical to Healthy People. The only difference is the addition of "communicate" to the legislative definition.

Why Does Health Literacy Matter?

Every day, people confront situations that involve life-changing decisions about their health. These decisions are made in places such as grocery and drug stores, workplaces, playgrounds, doctors' offices, clinics and hospitals, and around the kitchen table. Obtaining, communicating, processing, and understanding health information and services are essential steps in making appropriate health decisions; however, research indicates that today's health information is presented in ways that are not usable by most adults. "Limited health literacy" occurs when people can't find and use the health information and services they need.

  • Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in our healthcare facilities, retail outlets, media and communities.
  • Without clear information and an understanding of the information's importance, people are more likely to skip necessary medical tests, end up in the emergency room more often, and have a harder time managing chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure.

What Needs to Be Done to Improve Health Literacy?

We can do much better in designing and presenting health information and services that people can use effectively. We can build our own health literacy skills and help others—community members, health professionals, and anyone else who communicates about health—build their skills too. Every organization involved in health information and services needs its own health literacy plan to improve its organizational practices.  The resources on this site will help you learn about health literacy issues, develop skills, create an action plan, and apply what you learn to create health information and services that truly make a positive difference in people's lives.

To read more about this topic, from this and related documents, please see Health Literacy: Accurate, Accessible and Actionable Health Information for All from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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