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Health Literacy Definition & Its Most Important Hidden Messages

The concept of health literacy has a pretty long history, dating back to the 1970s. From its first “accidental” use in an academic paper to today, health literacy continues to gain more and more attention within governmental agencies and academic communities. While this research has brought more clarity within these organizations, for those of us slightly more removed from it in our day-to-day lives, sometimes it’s hard to keep up.

Speaking of keeping up… the most recent health literacy definition has now been split up into two separate definitions! Let’s jump straight to where this definition stands as of 2021.1

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

While these definitions aren’t the shortest, they also aren’t all that complex. They’re built with concise yet simple words that were carefully selected and are packed with meaning.

Time to grab your shovel. We’re going to reveal three of the most important hidden messages buried in this “simple” definition of health literacy.
gardening tools

It’s More Than Reading Skills

It’s tempting to think of health literacy as just the combination of the definitions of health + literacy. But health literacy is more than just being able to read health information. It’s about a person’s current medical knowledge and their ability to grow and expand that knowledge to effectively navigate our healthcare system throughout their health journey.

It’s important to remember that even though there’s some correlation between traditional literacy and health literacy, they aren’t the same. A health literate individual is able to find the health-related information they need, comprehend what they find, and apply it to their individual care.

Many factors affect health literacy, from education and poverty level to ethnicity and age. So, even a literate person can still have poor health literacy. In fact, 48% of patients with low health literacy have a college degree, and 97% have graduated from high school.2

man reading

It’s Rooted in Action

The father of medicine, Hippocrates, defined the goals of medicine as:

“to do away with the sufferings of the sick; to lessen the violence of their diseases; and to refuse to treat those who are overmastered by their diseases, realizing that in such cases medicine is powerless.”3

While the “official” goals of medicine have evolved quite a bit since 370 BC, there’s one thing at the core of every goal of medicine—they all have to do with improving outcomes. It’s that simple.

By extension, health literacy matters because it’s a major determinate of outcome. And what can change patient outcomes? Is it merely understanding something? No!

You need action.

Just knowing what a mammogram means won’t help any women improve their chances against breast cancer. Women need to truly grasp the importance of the screening, have all their worries addressed, know how to schedule one, and ultimately follow through in order to impact their outcome. The only action that counts is getting a mammogram (and continuing forward if there is a concern).

This is exactly why health literacy is more than just understanding something; it’s about the ability to act on it.

It’s Bigger Than an Individual

Why does the most recent health literacy have two separate definitions? After all, they’re basically built on the same concepts with almost identical words. You may be wondering, “Are four different words (“organizations equitably enable individuals”) really worth a whole new definition?”

We’d say yes! It all has to do with responsibility.

By adding a whole separate definition for health literacy, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is highlighting that the weight of health literacy isn’t just on the shoulders of individuals.

It’s up to organizations—from non-profits and government agencies to corporations—to help individuals improve their health literacy. Beyond that, we must work to help all individuals equally—not just the populations that are easiest to serve.


Are You Doing Your Part?

At Leveling Health, we’ve accepted our role as a promoter of health literacy. But we can’t do it alone; we need the support of other organizations to really move the needle.

Take a moment to reflect. Ask yourself, “Could I be doing more?”

If the answer is yes, let Leveling Health help you make an impact. We have a wide range of solutions designed to help our clients reach their business goals while also improving health literacy.

Ready to get started?

Take the first step to improving health literacy among your consumers by requesting your FREE Sample Kit. Experience our unique patient-centered materials that equip, motivate, and activate patients to take ownership of their health.

  1. Health Literacy in Healthy People 2030. https://health.gov/our-work/healthy-people/healthy-people-2030/health-literacy-healthy-people-2030. Accessed December 22, 2020.
  2. Healthcare System Complexity. Accenture. https://www.accenture.com/us-en/insights/health/hidden-cost-healthcare-system-complexity. Published September 6, 2018. Accessed December 22, 2020.
  3. Baker R. The history of medical ethics. In: Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine. Vol 2. 1st ed. London: Routledge; 1993:860.

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