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Health Literacy


What is health literacy?

Woman reading medication information

HHS recently released an article in Health Affairs, entitled “New Federal Policy Initiatives to Boost Health Literacy Can Help the Nation Move Beyond the Cycle of Costly ‘Crisis Care.’” The article outlines what the Department is doing to improve healthy literacy rates nationwide, and how we have brought health literacy to a tipping point through health policy milestones, including:

  • The healthcare reform law,
  • The National Action Plan to Improve Healthy Literacy, and
  • The Plain Writing Act of 2010.

Health literacy is the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.

Why is health literacy important?

Nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in health care facilities, retail outlets, media, and communities.1,2,3 Limited health literacy is associated with poorer health outcomes and higher health care costs.4

Limited health literacy affects people’s ability to:

  • Search for and use health information
  • Adopt healthy behaviors
  • Act on important public health alerts.

There are a number of Federal resources to help health and communication professionals improve health literacy, including the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, Health Literacy Online: A Guide to Writing and Designing Easy-to-Use Health Web Sites and the Quick Guide to Health Literacy. These resources and many others are included in the tools, reports and research, and related resources sections.


1 Nielsen-Bohlman, L., Panzer, A. M., & Kindig, D. A. (Eds.). (2004). Health Literacy: A Prescription to End cConfusion. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

2 Kutner, M., Greenberg, E., Jin, Y., & Paulsen, C. (2006). The Health Literacy of America’s Adults: Results From the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NCES 2006-483). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

3 Rudd, R. E., Anderson, J. E., Oppenheimer, S., & Nath, C. (2007). Health literacy: An update of public health and medical literature. In J. P. Comings, B. Garner, & C. Smith. (Eds.), Review of Adult Learning and Literacy (vol. 7) (pp 175–204). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

4 Berkman, N. D., DeWalt, D. A., Pignone, M. P., Sheridan, S. L., Lohr, K. N., Lux, L., et al. (2004). Literacy and Health Outcomes (AHRQ Publication No. 04-E007-2). Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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