Health Literacy Month

For over 20 years, October has been recognized as Health Literacy Month. We believe it is important for
everyone to feel confident when receiving and interpreting health information so they are able to make
informed decisions for themselves and others.

What is health literacy?

“Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”

“Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Healthy People 2030: Health Literacy in Healthy People.

Limited health literacy is very common due to many factors, including the usage of medical jargon and the unfamiliarity and complexity of medical information to those who are unfamiliar. Doctors and other medical professionals are responsible for providing you the information you need in ways that are easily understandable. It is our responsibility to recognize when we are not understanding or being provided with the information we need.

Effects of limited health literacy:

Limited health literacy has very real consequences for people’s health. Compared to those with adequate health literacy, adults with limited health literacy have:

  • More serious medication errors.
  • Higher rates of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and death.
  • Worse preventive care and health outcomes for their children.

Brach C et al. [2012]. 10 Attributes of Health Literate Health Care Organizations

Not only is limited and low health literacy consequential for people’s health, but it can be costly to the healthcare system. According to a 2007 study, estimates range from $106 billion to $238 billion in unnecessary costs each year, which account for 7% to 17% of all personal healthcare spending in the United States.
Vernon JA et al. (2007). Low Health Literacy: Implications for National Health Policy

How to improve your health literacy:

  • Ask Questions. If you don’t understand what a doctor is telling you or only understand some of it, ask them for clarification. There’s no need to feel embarrassed for not understanding! 
  • Repeat what the doctor says. Doctors often need to get a lot of information across in a short amount of time. To make sure you understand, repeat back the information in your own words. They can then confirm you got it right!
  • Bring a loved one with you to the appointment if possible. Having two sets of ears to listen to instructions or take notes on what the doctor is saying can be helpful in case they hear something you missed. 
  • Keep a list of questions for your doctor. Write down any unfamiliar terms, research you saw on the news, or any other concerns. Keep the list handy for appointments or phone calls with your doctor.
  • Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. There is no shortage of medical information available to you online, but finding information that has been reviewed by multiple reliable experts can be hard. When you search for medical information online, make sure the website is operated by a reputable organization. Check to see if the information has been reviewed by a person with expertise in that field. It’s also a good idea to look at a number of different websites to make sure the information is confirmed and supported by different organizations.
  • Watch the Institute for Healthcare Advancement’s video for more information: