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The Importance of Health Literacy

Health Literacy is a phrase that a lot of people don’t fully understand. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, 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.” The skills needed to do so are reading and writing, calculating numbers, communicating information with healthcare professionals, and using health technology.

Why is Health Literacy Important?

There is very little you do on a daily basis that doesn’t affect your health: what you eat, how stagnant you are, when you see your doctor, if you smoke, how much you drink, etc. The ability to establish a healthy lifestyle for oneself and make healthy decisions, one must know how to read food and medication labels, understand paperwork and their doctors, and grasp food’s impact on your body. These actions and decisions can get complicated, to be able to perform these successfully, one must have the skillset that some educational and medical facilities do not provide.

Low literacy can result in medication errors, minimal treatment compliance, less preventative actions taken to ensure overall health, ineffective management of disease, higher mortality rates, and more. An understanding of your personal health, and valuing the body and mind you’re gifted, is something a lot of us take for granted. Some are educated on the topic, and have the ability to research medical journals and comprehend what they're reading, some do not.

Who has Low Health Literacy?

It is estimated that nearly 90 million Americans have low health literacy. According to the Center for Healthcare Strategies, a lot being affected include:

  1. Those with a low socioeconomic status or education

  2. The elderly

  3. Those with low English proficiency or those who are non-native English speakers; and

  4. Those who are receiving publicly-financed health coverage or other socio-economic assistance

Without proper education and opportunities given to those in need, the health literacy level will remain static. With all of the impacts low health literacy has on the United States - from government costs, medical errors, illness and disability, wage loss, to individual costs - it’s estimated to cost the U.S. economy $236 every year.

How to Promote a Better Understanding of Low Health Literacy

The first step that healthcare providers can take is reducing the level of needed reading level on all informational papers, infographics, and communication to a fifth grade level. The medical system is sometimes difficult and those who need help in navigating it should be granted the assistance they need without second thought. Healthcare professionals need to be culturally competent and be able to give those who are ESL an option to speak to someone who can relate the information with 100% clarity. Providing education to improve overall literacy skills (i.e. reading comprehension and writing) will change the amount of health illiterate individuals across the board, and empower individuals to take charge of their health.

Health literacy is not something to be ignored, especially in these unprecedented times.


Mahadevan, R. (2019, July 18). Health Literacy Fact Sheets. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

Health Literacy. (2019, August 13). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

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