An Introduction to Health Literacy

What Is Health Literacy?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Healthy People 2030 initiative, health literacy involves the information and services that people need to make well-informed health decisions. There many aspects of health literacy:

  • 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. Examples of personal health literacy include understanding prescription drug instructions, understanding doctor’s directions and consent forms, and the ability to navigate the complex healthcare system.
  • 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. Examples of organizational health literacy include simplifying the process to schedule appointments, using the Teach-Back method to ensure patient comprehension, and providing communications in the appropriate language, reading level and format.
  • Digital health literacy, as defined by the World Health Organization, is the ability to seek, find, understand, and appraise health information from electronic sources and apply the knowledge gained to addressing or solving a health problem. Examples of digital health literacy include accessing your electronic health record, communicating electronically with your health care team, ability to discern reliable online health information, and using health and wellness apps.
  • Numeracy, also known as quantitative literacy, refers to a set of mathematical and advanced problem-solving skills that are necessary to succeed in a society increasingly driven by data, as defined by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Examples of Numeracy include understanding nutrition information, interpreting blood sugar readings, taking correct dosage of medication (ex. take one capsule twice a day), evaluating treatment benefits and risks, and understanding insurance costs and coverage.

Who Has Limited Health Literacy Skills?

Nearly 9 out of 10 adults struggle with health literacy. Even people with high literacy skills may have low health literacy skills in certain situations. For example, someone who is stressed and sick when they’re accessing health information may have trouble remembering, understanding, and using that information.

Why Is Health Literacy Important?

Health literacy involves more than reading — it also includes specific skills, like calculating the right dose of a medicine, following directions for fasting before a surgery, or checking a nutrition label to make sure an item is safe for someone with a food allergy. People with low health literacy skills may have trouble doing these things.

People with low health literacy skills are more likely to:

  • Have poor health outcomes, including hospital stays and emergency room visits
  • Make medication errors
  • Have trouble managing chronic diseases
  • Skip preventive services, like flu shots

People with higher health literacy skills are more likely to make informed health decisions. That means they’re more likely to be healthy — and even to live longer.

How Can We Address Health Literacy?

Communicating clearly with people helps them find and understand health information. And when people understand health information, they can make well-informed health decisions.

We can also consider taking these steps to address health literacy:

  • Ensure that people in the community can easily access the health information they need
  • Create and provide plain language health materials in different languages
  • Provide trainings to teach health professionals and others who provide health information about health literacy best practices
  • Create clearinghouses of information about health literacy for health professionals
  • Review health materials (like insurance forms and medication instructions) with community members to help make sure they understand the information — and what actions they need to take

You can find more information about Health Literacy in MedlinePlus. To find journal articles about Health Literacy, you can use the MEDLINE/PubMed health literacy search to retrieve citations to English language journal literature.

How does NNLM support Health Literacy?

Training. The Network of the National Library of Medicine offers training for those who provide health information to the public. Many of our trainings support the understanding of health literacy and its effects on health while others help professionals gain needed skills to address health literacy in their communities.

Resources. NNLM creates and promotes resources that can support network members in improving the health literacy of their communities. These resources include:

  • Clinical Conversations is a training program for clinicians about health literacy and related concepts. This program allows clinical trainers or managers to offer brief trainings embedded into existing meetings or trainings as a way to offer continuing education that does not take time out of already busy schedules.
  • Engage for Health is program is available for libraries, community and faith based agencies and health care providers to offer in their communities. The program consists of tools to conduct a community education program on taking an active role in health care and patient-doctor communication.
  • Project SHARE is a program developed by the University of Maryland Health Sciences and Human Services Library and funded by the National Library of Medicine. Project SHARE aims to build high school students' skills to reduce health disparities at the personal, family and community level. Module II of the curriculum focuses on health literacy.
  • Digital Health Literacy Tools from NNLM and All of Us in partnership with the Public Library Association (PLA) and Wisconsin Health Literacy aim to reach people on the other side of the digital divide. These tools help people gain the digital literacy skills needed to access and evaluate health information online and to participate in the All of Us Research Program (All of Us).
  • Evaluating Internet Health Information: A Tutorial from the National Library of Medicine and MedlinePlus teaches people how to evaluate a variety of sources on the internet to determine how to find reliable sources. This also teaches people how to make proactive decisions about their health.

Funding. NNLM’s Regional Medical Libraries offer grant funding in their respective regions. Funded projects often address health literacy by linking members of the community with quality health information resources and providing training on their use. Other projects address health literacy by offering training to information professionals, healthcare providers or other health professionals about how to support and address health literacy in their communities. Select projects are highlighted in the videos below. More information about funding, including additional previously funded projects is available on NNLM’s funding page.

Promotores de Salud (Tucson, AZ)

NLM Outreach - Wash and Learn (St Paul, MN)

Technology Outreach to Reduce Health Disparities and Stigma

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Health Literacy Projects

Browse NNLM's past funded projects to gain inspiration for your health literacy project.


Clinical Conversations
Use this program in your next staff meeting or training to increase knowledge and awareness of health literacy and associated skills and tools. Clinical Conversations includes 7 subjects, each containing 3-12 modules and ready-to-use materials.