Health literacy

What is health literacy?

If your patients have ever inaccurately filled out their registration forms, filled out health questionnaires incorrectly or taken their medications the wrong way, they may have limited health literacy skills.

Health literacy is a person’s ability to find and understand basic health information and the services needed to make correct health decisions.

A lack of understanding health information can lead to:

  • Medication errors
  • Missed appointments
  • Excess hospitalizations
  • Adverse medical outcomes
  • Malpractice lawsuits

While anyone from any demographic can have limited health literacy, populations most likely affected are:

  • The elderly
  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • People with less than a high school degree or GED
  • People with low income levels
  • Individuals with limited English proficiency

The importance of health literacy

According to the Partnership for Clear Health Communication:

  • Literacy skills are a stronger predictor of an individual’s health status than age, income, employment status, education level, or racial/ethnic groups.
  • One out of five American adults reads at the 5th grade level or below, and the average American reads at the 8th to 9th grade level. Yet, most health care materials are written above the 10th grade level.
  • Annual health care costs for individuals with low literacy skills are four-times higher than those with higher literacy skills.
  • Only about 50 percent of all patients take medications as directed.
  • Patients with low health literacy and chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma or hypertension, have less knowledge of their disease and its treatment and fewer correct self-management skills.
  • Patients with low literacy skills were observed to have a 50 percent increased risk of hospitalization.
  • Limited health literacy increases the inequality in healthcare access among exceptionally vulnerable populations.

The link between health literacy and cultural competence

Culture affects how people communicate, understand and respond to health information. Cultural and linguistic competency of health professionals can contribute to health literacy.

Cultural competence is the ability of health organizations and practitioners to recognize the cultural beliefs, values, attitudes, traditions, language preferences, and health practices of diverse populations and to apply that knowledge to produce a positive health outcome. Competency includes communicating in a manner that is linguistically and culturally appropriate.

Effective medical care can best be delivered by providing easy to understand information to all patients.

Learn more about cultural competency with cultural competency training.