Understanding Health Literacy

Understanding your medical condition

Health Literacy Affects Everyone

Health literacy is important for everyone because, at some point in our lives, we all need to be able to find, understand, and use health information and services.

Taking care of our health is part of everyday life, not just when we visit a doctor, clinic, or hospital. Health literacy can help us prevent health problems, protect our health, and better manage health problems when they arise.

Even people who read well and are comfortable using numbers can face health literacy issues when:

  • They aren’t familiar with medical terms or how their bodies work.
  • They have to interpret statistics and evaluate risks and benefits that affect their health and safety.
  • They are diagnosed with a serious illness and are scared and confused.
  • They have health conditions that require complicated self-care.
  • They are voting on an issue affecting the community’s health and relying on unfamiliar technical information.

Why Do We Have a Health Literacy Problem?

When organizations or people create and give others health information that is too difficult for them to understand, we create a health literacy problem. When we expect them to figure out health services with many unfamiliar, confusing, or even conflicting steps, we also create a health literacy problem.

How Can We Help People Now?

We can help people use the health literacy skills they have. How? We can do the following:

  • Create and provide information and services people can understand and use most effectively with the skills they have.
  • Work with educators and others to help people become more familiar with health information and services and build their health literacy skills over time.
  • Build our own skills as communicators of health information.
  • Work with trusted messengers to share your information.
  • Build health-literate organizations.
  • Consider the cultural and linguistic norms, environment, and history of your intended audience when developing your information and messages.
  • Use certified translators and interpreters who can adapt to your intended audience’s language preferences, communication expectations, and health literacy skills.

Reports and Evidence on Limited Health Literacy

Several reports document that limited health literacy affects many types of health conditions, diseases, situations, and outcomes, including health status and costs. Here are some resources for further reading:

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education published the only national data on health literacy skills. The study found that adults who self-report the worst health also have the most limited literacy, numeracy, and health literacy skills.

The U.S. Department of Education subsequently published 2012/14 and 2017 results on self-reported health status of U.S. adults using data from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). These results reinforce the findings of their 2006 report.

European Union countries have found similar health literacy skill issues in the European Health Literacy Survey.

The following two resources are regularly updated with health literacy research:

  • PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
  • Roundtable on Health Literacy commissioned papers (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine)

Are Limited Health Literacy and Limited Literacy the Same Problem?

Limited health literacy and limited literacy are not the same, but they are related. Strong literacy and numeracy skills do help people understand and use health information and services, but research shows that most people still say that information and services are unfamiliar, complicated, and too technical.

Learn More from Health Literacy Leaders

Listen to health literacy leaders describe their research and practice in podcasts (Source: Health Literacy Out Loud).


Q: What is health literacy?
A: Health literacy refers to the ability to find, understand, and use health information and services effectively.

Q: Why is health literacy important?
A: Health literacy is important because it helps individuals prevent health problems, protect their health, and better manage health issues when they arise.

Q: How can we improve health literacy?
A: We can improve health literacy by creating and providing information and services that are easy to understand, working with educators to build health literacy skills over time, and ensuring that our communication and messages consider the cultural and linguistic norms of our intended audience.


Health literacy is a crucial skill that affects everyone. By understanding and addressing health literacy issues, we can empower individuals to make informed decisions about their health and improve health outcomes. It is important for organizations, educators, and communicators to work together to ensure that health information and services are accessible and easy to understand. By doing so, we can contribute to a healthier and more informed society.