Skip Navigation HRSA - U.S Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Service Administration HHS
Order Publications
Grants Find Help Service Delivery Data Health Care Concerns About HRSA

Health Literacy

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

Healthy People 2010, Health Communication Terminology


Patients’ health literacy may be affected if they have
  • Health care providers who use words that patients don’t understand
  • Low educational skills
  • Cultural barriers to health care
  • Limited English Proficiency (LEP)
Limited health literacy is more prevalent among
  • Older adults
  • Minority populations
  • Those who are poor
  • Medically underserved people
Patients with limited health literacy may have difficulty
  • Locating providers and services
  • Filling out complex health forms
  • Sharing their medical history with providers
  • Seeking preventive health care
  • Knowing the connection between risky behaviors and health
  • Managing chronic health conditions
  • Understanding directions on medicine
How health care professionals can help
  • Identify patients with limited literacy levels
  • Use simple language, short sentences and define technical terms
  • Supplement instruction with appropriate materials (videos, models, pictures, etc.)
  • Ask patients to explain your instructions (teach back method) or demonstrate the procedure
  • Ask questions that begin with “how” and “what,” rather than closed-ended yes/no questions
  • Organize information so that the most important points stand out and repeat this information
  • Reflect the age, cultural, ethnic and racial diversity of patients
  • For Limited English Proficiency (LEP) patients, provide information in their primary language
  • Improve the physical environment by using lots of universal symbols
  • Offer assistance with completing forms

About Literacy/Health Literacy

National Institute for Literacy (U.S. Government)

National Assessment of Adult Literacy (U.S. Department of Education)

Health Literacy Improvement (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Disease Prevention & Health Promotion)

Let Everyone Participate/Limited English Proficiency ( U.S. Government Interagency LEP Work Group)

Health Literacy Roundtable (Institute of Medicine)