Health Literacy - Why It Matters to Health Outcomes

“How can I have a healthy pregnancy?”…“Where can I get healthy food?”…“What shots do my children need?”…“What types of health clinics are offered in your community?”…or “Am I at risk for heart disease?”  Do any of these questions sound familiar? You may have found yourself or people you know asking some of these questions or ones like them.

According to the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, “Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in our health care facilities, retail outlets, media, and communities.” If you are a numbers person, that is 90% of adults! So why does this matter?  Limitations in health literacy are a financial burden to healthcare systems, as well as are associated with increased death and illness.

Healthy Literacy, defined by “the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V, is the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017).

One’s health literacy is an important component of everyday life, helping guide health decisions and health information and services. Health literacy is necessary to communicate needs, understand choices. What if an individual understood their risk for heart disease and took steps to improve their quality of life, e.g. healthy nutrition and physical activity behaviors, quit smoking, etc. and actually reduced their risk of disease and death?

While being health literate is essential, even people who are well informed can have challenges with health literacy, including interpreting statistics or complicated self-care.

Let us take the nutrition facts label as an example. The Food and Drug Administration (2016) has updated the nutrition facts label to emphasize information important to guide consumers decisions on food purchases as it pertains to health.  Do you know how to read a nutrition label? What about illiterate adults? Even with these updates, people still need to understand how to interpret the information. The annual Food and Health survey found that many of us are confused by what “healthy” foods mean (Food Information Council Foundation, 2017).

So, where does a person find answers to those health literacy questions? Local news, social media, magazines, newspapers, friends…these are just some of the outlets that people rely upon to get and understand health information and perhaps even yourself. With the expanding technology era and availability of information sources, there are many outlets that people rely upon for health information. According to the Pew Research Center, Health Online (2013), one in three American adults have gone online to figure out a medical condition.

The challenges the United States faces with healthy literacy can be attributable to the level of health information disseminated to priority populations, making the information difficult to understand and expecting populations to figure it out (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017).

So how can health literacy be addressed?  If you are a public health professional, health care provider, or someone who is responsible for disseminating health information, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017) recommends the following strategies:

  1. Create and provide information and services people can understand and use most effectively with the skills they have. Use familiar words, concept, images, numbers, etc.

  2. Work with educators and others to help people become more familiar with health information and services and build their health literacy skills over time. Keep in mind the social determinants of health that play a part in growing those skills.

  3. Test information with the population before it is released. Solicit feedback before it is released.

  4. Build our own skills as communicators of health information. Use everyday words.

  5. Learn more

If you want to know the where to find answers to those questions of, “When should I get a mammogram?”…“Where to access healthy foods?”…“What types of health clinics are in your community?”...take steps to become an informed and health literate.  If you know of an individual who needs assistance with health literacy, take steps to help that person become informed and health literate. Seek out information from credible sources (online and in person), such as your local or state health department, State Extension Programs, health care providers, local coalitions and organizations focused on health issues, or national organizations, such as the United States Department of Agriculture, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health.  Be informed and take control of your health.

So, does health literacy truly does matter to health outcomes? You be the judge.

Happy Learning!



  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2017, July 26). Health Literacy. Retrieved from

  2. International Food Information Council Foundation. (2017). 2017 Food and Health Survey: "A Healthy Perspective: Understanding American Food Values. Retrieved from

  3. Diaz, J., Griffith, R., Ng., J., Reinert, St., Friedmann, P. & Moulton, A. A Patients” Use of the Internet for Medical Information. J Gen Intern Med. 2002 Mar; 17(3): 180–185. doi: 10.1046/j.1525-1497.2002.10603.x

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2010). National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. Washington, DC: Author.

  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016). Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label. Retrieved from