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Understanding Health Literacy during Health Literacy Month

Written by: Ahrein Bennett, MPH, CPH, CHES

October is the month to observe and raise awareness about health literacy and its impact on health outcomes.

Health literacy can be defined in two ways: Personal health literacy and Organizational health literacy. According to the Institute for Healthcare Advancement (IHA), personal health literacy is how well an individual can find, use, and understand information to make decisions about their own health. On the other hand, organizational health literacy is how well an organization can help all people find, use, and understand information to make decisions in an equitable manner.

Health literacy differs from general literacy and numeracy because it is not only the ability to understand, but it also is the ability to find and use information and services to make informed health care decisions.

Due to the complex nature of the US healthcare system, many are at risk of misunderstanding health information—regardless of how much formal education they received. In fact, only 12% of American adults are considered to have proficient health literacy skills (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Low health literacy is associated with poorer health outcomes because individuals with low health literacy are more likely to skip preventative services, make medication errors, and misinterpret health information, and not follow their treatment plan.

If you or one of your clients are often missing appointments, turning in incomplete paperwork, or unable to identify or retell medical history, health literacy may be a barrier to treatment. Both patients and providers can take steps in improving health literacy. If you are a patient, write your questions down before visiting your doctor and repeat back what you understand their responses are to confirm that the both of you are on the same page. If you are a provider, replace medical terminology with common language or visual aids in written and spoken communications.

To learn more about Health Literacy month visit .


America’s Health Literacy: Why We Need Accessible Health Information. An Issue Brief From the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2008.

About Author:

Arhein Bennett, MPH, CPH, CHES

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