Understanding Health Literacy

Health LiteracyHealth literacy is complicated.  Many people struggle with understanding medications, self-care instructions, and follow up plans.  Health literacy is the ability to understand medical jargon and make the best decisions for your health.  Health literacy means more than reading words but also numbers, symbols, charts, as well as being able to weigh risks and benefits in order to make the best health care decisions.

Navigating within the medical arena is challenging for everyone, even those with a high level of literacy.  Primary care practices should ensure that systems are in place to promote better understanding for all patients.  One-third of the adult population has limited health literacy, which is associated with medication errors, increased health care costs and inadequate knowledge of care for chronic health conditions.

Health literacy can affect anyone, no matter his or her level of education.  Individuals with low health literacy may have difficulty with the following tasks:

  • Filling out medical forms
  • Communicating with health care providers
  • Reading labels on medications
  • Managing and maintaining follow-up plans


Health care providers rely heavily on print materials to communicate with patients. Many health-related documents are written at a college level, containing a large amount of text in small print with complex terminology.  Those with limited literacy skills have difficulty understanding written information, including medication dosage instructions and warning labels and basic health information about diseases, nutrition, prevention, and health services. The inability to read and comprehend can prevent clinicians from obtaining an accurate medical history. It can also affect your patients’ ability to understand medical advice, take medication correctly, engage in self-care behaviors, and make informed decisions about their health care.

Health literacy is the responsibility of everyone, not just the providers.  Patients need to be asking questions.  Not asking questions is a key sign for physicians that the information given was not understood.  Asking patients to repeat back what they heard the instructions to be in their words will provide an opportunity for additional explanations before they leave and allows an opportunity to correct misunderstandings and avoid potential harm.

Health education materials can help continue the engagement formed between a physician and patient even after they leave the hospital.  However, not all health education materials are equal.  You can see how your health education materials compare by downloading our free Health Literacy Checklist.