Nurse improving health literacy by helping senior woman make informed decisions about her health

Understanding and Improving Health Literacy

Nurse improving health literacy by helping senior woman make informed decisions about her health

As the world begins its slow climb out of the pandemic, issues of public health remain top-of-mind for many. High on that list is the issue of improving health literacy.

But what is health literacy, and why does it matter?

Data-driven health

Simply put, health literacy is an individual’s ability to find, understand, and assess information relevant to their health, and make informed decisions based on that data.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Healthy People 2030 initiative, the concept of health literacy can be broken down into four practical subsegments:

  • Personal health literacy. On an individual level, how well can a person find, understand, and put to use information about health-related services? Examples of personal health literacy include:
    • Understanding prescription drug instructions
    • Understanding doctor’s directions and consent forms
    • A working knowledge of and ability to navigate the complex healthcare landscape
  • Organizational health literacy. To what degree do organizations equitably empower individuals to develop and practice personal health literacy? Is the organizational structure complex and opaque, or transparent and easy to navigate? Examples include:
    • A simplified appointment scheduling process
    • Use of the Teach-Back method to ensure patient comprehension
    • Providing forms in the appropriate language, reading level, and format
  • Digital health literacy. Similar to personal health literacy, digital health literacy measures someone’s ability to find and leverage relevant health information using electronic or digital means.
  • Numeracy. Also known as quantitative literacy, numeracy refers to an individual’s mathematical and advanced problem-solving skills, which are often needed when navigating an information-based system. Some examples of numeracy in action include:
    • Correctly reading a nutrition label
    • Interpreting blood sugar measurements
    • Taking correct dosage of medication
    • Evaluating treatment benefits and risks
    • Understanding insurance costs and coverage

Related: Population Health: Contemporary Perspectives for Nurses

Why health literacy matters

Widespread health literacy is the cornerstone of a healthy society.  Without it, people are more likely to experience poor health outcomes, including more frequent hospital stays and emergency room visits. The chances for medication errors are higher, and they may have trouble managing chronic diseases.

They may also skip preventive services, like flu shots and other vaccinations — which may have health consequences for more than just the individual.

On the other hand, those with higher health literacy skills are more likely to make informed health decisions, which may translate to better health and even longer lives.

Improving health literacy

Just as reading literacy begins at an early age, so too should health literacy. To help reach that goal, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) has launched a national initiative designed to bolster health literacy rates in the U.S.

Summarized in the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, this initiative lays out a few key strategies addressing the issues of education, including:

  • Incorporating accurate, standards-based, and developmentally appropriate health and science information and curricula in child care and education through the university level
  • Supporting and expanding local efforts to provide adult education, English language instruction, and culturally and linguistically appropriate health information services in the community
  • Increasing the dissemination and use of evidence-based health literacy practices and interventions

To learn more about national health initiatives, including health literacy, visit the USDHHS website