Health Literacy

What is Health Literacy?

Health literacy is a measurement of how well a person can find, understand and use health information. It incorporates not only the ability to read and understand presented information, but also takes into account social factors (such as age and culture), conceptual knowledge, listening and speaking skills.

Colorado Hospital Association is an active member of the Colorado Health Literacy Coalition. To learn more about the coalition and view upcoming events, please click here.

A person’s health literacy is affected by:

  • The communication skills and knowledge of the health professional presenting information
  • Cultural factors for the person and the health professional
  • The pressure and obligations of the health care system
  • Immediacy or other demands of the situation

Health literacy can affect a person’s ability to:

  • Work through the health care system – completing proper paperwork, finding support services, locating health care services and professionals
  • Share appropriate information with health care professionals (i.e. health history or medications)
  • Understand instructions from health professionals
  • Manage chronic disease
  • Perform proper self-care
  • Comprehend the probability or risk of developing health conditions or complications and how to prevent them

Why is Health Literacy Important?

A fully health literate society could reduce health care costs in the hundreds of billions of dollars each year. According to the Institute of Medicine, however, a mere 12 percent of Americans have the health literacy skill to complete complex health tasks and 90 million Americans are considered to have limited health literacy.

People who are highly literate in other fields, such as engineering, education, and law may not understand health information because it is not in their realm of expertise and because of the language and acronyms health care professionals use. While health literacy can span the ranges of education, race, age and income, those with health literacy concerns tend to be of minority groups and lower socioeconomic levels.

One of the largest concerns is that health information is written above a 10th grade level, but the average American reads at an 8th or 9th grade level, and one in five Americans read at the 5th grade level or lower. In addition, more than half of American seniors (ages 60 and older) have poor to low reading ability.

How Does Health Literacy Affect Health Outcomes?

Health literacy affects health outcomes in a number of ways, including:

Increased Chronic Conditions: Lower health literate people more often have chronic conditions and are not able to manage them effectively.

Under-Utilization of Prevention Services and Increased Cost: Often those with lower health literacy will not recognize the importance of preventative services or do not know how to access them. As such, limited health literacy individuals tend to skip flu shots, well checks and cancer screenings. Instead, they later seek treatment services, which are more costly.

Increased Hospitalizations: Those with lower health literacy have more frequent and more preventable hospital visits and admissions.

Poor Health: Studies indicate that those with lower health literacy tend to report poorer health than those with adequate health literacy.

Stigma: Having a lessened health literacy often leads to stigma and shame. Experts have found that many with limited health literacy are ashamed of their lack of understanding and may hide difficulties to maintain dignity.

Recommended Resources

For more information about the importance and impact of health literacy:

For comprehensive resources to build a health literate organization: