“Health literacy” is defined as a person’s ability to read, understand, and use
basic medical and health information to make informed decisions. Knowing how to seek medical
care, how to take necessary medications, and how to follow a self-care regimen are all very
important health tasks that require people to understand and use health information. Unfortunately,
according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly nine out of 10 adults
have low health literacy.
And, while health literacy is an issue across all racial and ethnic groups, according to
the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) study, health literacy was found to
be lowest among uninsured adults and those enrolled in Medicaid and Medicare. This fact is
particularly concerning since more than 50 million Americans are uninsured – that’s nearly
one in six people – and already face difficulties accessing the medical care and prescription
medicines they need to maintain a healthy life. Studies suggest that when health information
or resources are presented or made available to uninsured individuals, they may not have the
health literacy skills necessary to take advantage of them.
When people feel challenged by health information, they are more likely to skip necessary
medical tests, make more frequent visits to the emergency room, and have more difficulty
managing chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure. Thus, it is not surprising
that low health literacy has been associated with poor health outcomes.
That is why it is critical that healthcare professionals, patient advocates, and caregivers
work together to improve health literacy; ensuring that health information and services are
understood and used appropriately by patients, family members, and friends. This is especially
important for uninsured individuals. Presenting health information simply and in easy-to-understand
language is one way to help people better their health.
Individuals can also take an active role in improving their own health literacy skills.
A few suggestions include: 1) be prepared for all appointments by writing down a list of
questions or topics to discuss with your healthcare provider, 2) ask your healthcare provider
to repeat information or explain it using less complex language, 3) write down or record
important information during the appointment, or 4) take a family member or trusted friend
to appointments with you to help you better understand and/or remember information. Taking
the time to fully understand health information can lead to better decision-making about one’s health.
Within the health community, much has been done to address this issue. However, more work is
needed to ensure that communication of all types meet the health literacy needs of individuals
and their families — especially those who are uninsured.
Several organizations and government agencies offer resources or tips to help individuals
improve their health literacy. To learn more, visit: