October is Health Literacy Month
Unfortunately, several barriers exist in the United States regarding the health literacy of the general public. The U.S. healthcare system is dynamic and complex, and navigating it can be challenging for those facing health literacy barriers. This is why public health communicators and the general public at large need to recognize and promote October’s status as Health Literacy Month.
Here’s what you need to know about health literacy, the scope of health literacy challenges in the US, and what public health communicators should think about when creating and adapting resources for the public—especially for groups facing health literacy barriers.
What is Health Literacy?
What is health literacy? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), personal health literacy is “the degree to which individuals can find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”
For many, health literacy means understanding your medical condition enough to ask a doctor a follow-up question before they walk out the door, or being able to follow a daily medication regimen. Having health literacy means being able to read and understand discharge instructions after a visit to the emergency room—or understanding what conditions should be addressed in an emergency room versus in a primary care clinic in the first place.
Health literacy also means understanding how certain activities can affect health conditions and outcomes and being empowered to make lifestyle changes to improve your health.
The Importance of Advancing Health Literacy
Addressing health literacy is an actionable and powerful way to address health equity concerns. Promoting health literacy can help break down the health barriers that are facing the most vulnerable populations. An estimated 80 million adults in the U.S. have limited or low health literacy.
Health organizations and leaders must work together to ensure patients are equitably served. Those with limited or low health literacy need guidance to find, understand, and use information that impacts their understanding of their health and healthcare-related decision-making. Improving health literacy, in this way, can help decrease health disparities.
Who is Most Likely to Face Health Literacy Barriers?
According to the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), you are more likely to face a health literacy barrier if you are:
- An older adult
- A member of a minority population
- Someone with low socioeconomic status
- Someone who is medically underserved
People may face health literacy challenges if they are unfamiliar with the language used to deliver health-related information, they lack formal education, or they have difficulty understanding the cultural context of the health information delivered.
HRSA notes that public health communicators and health care professionals can help address health literacy barriers in several ways, including first recognizing when someone might be experiencing a health literacy barrier. After identifying someone with a limited health literacy level, communicators should make sure that they use plain language with short sentences and define any necessary medical terms. Using pictures, models, universal symbols, or videos can also help increase comprehension and therefore improve health literacy.
What are Health Literacy Best Practices?
Clear communication and transparency are paramount when it comes to promoting health literacy. A recent series on health literacy from the National Health Council established three key ways that public health communicators, health scientists, and health organizations can work to promote the health literacy of those they serve:
- Health communicators should explain complex topics in a way that is easy to understand.
- Health communicators should communicate with the public about the scientific process in a fashion that can enhance both comprehension and trust, especially when uncertainty or evolving data are involved.
- Health communicators should present numbers in ways that are easy to understand and apply.
These health literacy communication tenants should be reviewed every time that those with a high degree of health literacy are creating materials or campaigns that are public-facing and to ensure that health information can be accessible and beneficial for all.
How to Learn More About Health Literacy Month
If you’re interested in learning more about how to spread the word about health literacy this October, make sure to check out the Institute for Healthcare Advancement (IHA)’s Solutions Center or their Health Literacy Month site. Here you’ll find several videos, toolkits, and action ideas for how to build awareness.
Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members.
 What is Health Literacy? https://www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/index.html
 October is Health Literacy Month! https://nationalhealthcouncil.org/blog/october-is-health-literacy-month/#:~:text=October%2C%20through%20Health%20Literacy%20Month,access%20and%20understand%20health%20information.
 Health Literacy Solutions Center. https://www.healthliteracysolutions.org/blogs/iha-staff1/2021/09/08/october-is-health-literacy-month
 Health Literacy Month. https://www.healthliteracymonth.org/healthliteracymonth/hlm-home