The Long Walk to Health Literacy

Maureen McNulty (PhD Student)

This post is motivated by a talk taking place tomorrow on campus about health literacy! See details below.


Everyone knows that it’s important to “be healthy,” but how many people fully understand what that means and have the resources available to make healthy decisions? One measure of how well a person is able to do this is health literacy, which can be defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” [1]

So why is it so important to think about health literacy? To start, it is needed in many diverse situations, including:

  • A surgery patient understanding what he needs to do in order to fully recover, including being able to read and understand the directions to take his medicine
  • Parents planning and preparing meals for their family
  • An athlete recognizing when she should seek treatment for an injury
  • A person making decisions for an aging parent
  • A patient who does not speak English well being admitted to the emergency room
  • A person making sure to schedule regular dentist visits

According to a health literacy report released recently by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12% of American adults have a proficient level of health literacy. Many people probably know a little about at least some aspects of health, but it can be difficult to comprehend everything – for example, while I have a strong background in biological sciences, and consider myself to know enough about the human body to keep myself fairly healthy, I found myself at a loss when I had to pick a health insurance plan after getting my first job out of college.

Health literacy levels, from The Health Literacy of America’s Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (Source)

There are several groups of people that tend to have lower levels of health literacy, including older adults, immigrants, minorities, and adults living below the poverty level. [1] This is even more important to recognize when you consider that there are also health disparities among some of these groups [2] – for example, lower income and ethnic minority groups are at a higher risk of certain diseases as shown in the maps of Chicago below.


Chicago’s racial composition, by neighborhood. (Via Juleigh Nowinski Konchak, MD, Chicago Department of Public Health)

Cancer deaths, by Chicago neighborhood.

Cancer deaths, by Chicago neighborhood. (Via Juleigh Nowinski Konchak, MD, Chicago Department of Public Health)

Available research suggests that improving people’s health literacy should likewise improve their health outcomes. Diabetes patients with a higher level of health literacy have been shown to have better control over their disease. [3] Improving literacy can be achieved both through individual efforts and through government policies. Several recent policies have aimed to do just this: the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010; the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, established by the Department of Health and Human Services; and the Plain Writing Act, passed in 2010, which requires government documents and forms to be written in clear, concise language. [4]

Many resources are also available online to help individuals learn more about health and increase their health literacy. MedlinePlus (operated by the National Institutes of Health) offers a short tutorial and matching quizzes to help you learn how to break words down and get a clue about what they mean. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality offers many resources about health literacy, including tips for patients to help prevent medical errors, and a list of suggested questions to ask at your next doctors’ visit. The Health Literacy Out Loud podcast series features interviews with health literacy professionals.

Additionally, there are health literacy resources right here on the Northwestern campus! Tomorrow (Thursday, January 23), there will be a talk about health literacy taking place at Northwestern. Michael S. Wolf, PhD MPH, will present “Making Stone Soup: The Many Faces and Eventual Solutions to Lower Health Literacy.” This is part of a seminar series put on by Northwestern’s Institute for Public Health and Medicine (IPHAM). The talk will be from 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM in the Baldwin Auditorium of the Lurie Medical Research Center (303 E. Superior, Chicago IL 60611). This talk is open to the Northwestern community as well as the general public, and can even be live streamed through the IPHAM website! I hope to see you there!

  1. Glassman, P, NN/LM. Health Literacy. Available from:
  2. Saha, S. Improving Literacy as a Means to Reducing Health Disparities. J Gen Intern Med. 2006 Aug; 21(8): 893-895.
  3. Schillinger, D., et al. Association of Health Literacy with Diabetes Outcomes. JAMA. 2002 Jul; 288(4): 475-482.
  4. Koh, H., et al. New Federal Policy Initiatives to Boost Health Literacy Can Help the Nation Move Beyond the Cycle Of Costly ‘Crisis Care’. Health Affairs. 2012 Feb; 31, no.2: 434-443.
About NPHR Blog (339 Articles)
The is the blog of the Northwestern Public Health Review journal. The blog and journal are both student run and contain research articles, opinions, interviews and other content pertaining to public health.

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