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Health Literacy

What is Health Literacy?

Health Literacy is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information services needed to make appropriate health decisions” (Vernon, 2007). In simpler terms, it involves knowing how to find information, evaluate and use it in regards to health in everyday life. Clear communication between patients and their health care providers plays an important role in health literacy. In addition, it is important to note that “anyone can have low health literacy, including people with good literacy skills” (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services).

Health literacy affects people of all age, race and income levels. Regardless of reading level, many consumers favor easy to read materials when they need help understanding their health care. This is why easy to read health care materials are necessary. In addition, people are responsible for making their own health decisions every day. Therefore, it is important that they not just understand the information, but learn how to effectively use the health information (MLA, 2005).

Health Literacy Statistics

12% of Americans have proficient health literacy. 

53% of adults have an intermediate health literacy level.

21% of adults have basic health literacy.

14% have below basic health literacy.

(U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2008). 

Nearly 30 million people have below basic health literacy (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003).

Nearly 9 out of 10 adults do not have proficient health literacy (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, 2010). 90 million American adults, or half of American adults, cannot understand or act on the health information they receive (Parker, 2012).

50% of Hispanics, 40% of Blacks, 33% of Asians are estimated to have low health literacy problems (National Patient Safety Foundation, 2011).

These numbers increase with age, with 66% of US adults 60 years and over having inadequate or marginal literacy skills (Doak, 1996).

Americans read at an average level of 8th to 9th grade.

1 out of 5 read at the 5th grade level. 

However, health care materials are mostly written at a 10th grade reading level (National Patient Safety Foundation, 2011). This leads to increased poor health literacy due to the fact many Americans might not be able to understand their health care materials.