Health Literacy (Past COI)

Anne-Marie Kaminsky
Anne-Marie Kaminsky, Manager, Health Sciences Library at
Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, New London, CT.
Michelle Eberle
Michelle Eberle, MSLIS, AHIP, is the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, New England Region's Health Literacy and Community Engagement Coordinator.

Thank you to our previous Leaders, Caroline Marshall (Year One); Margot Malachowski (Year Two); and Anne Conner (Year Three).

Our Health Literacy Community of Interest provides opportunities for health sciences librarians and other network members to learn more about health literacy.

What is health literacy?

The Institute of Medicine defines health literacy 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”.  More recent definitions, such as the Calgary Charter, focus on specific skills needed to navigate the health care system and the importance of clear communication between health care providers and their patients.  Both health care providers and patients play important roles in health literacy. The US Dept of HHS's National Action Plan describes health literacy as, "a complex phenomenon that involves skills, knowledge, and the expectations that health professionals have of the public's interest in understanding of health information and services.

How can my library contribute to health literacy?

Health information and library professionals, health care professionals, educators and licensing and credentialing organizations, health care executives are critical in promoting changes in the health care delivery system to improve health information, communication, informed decision making, and access to clinical and public health services (National Action Plan). Participate with our Community of Interest to learn skills and share best practices with your colleagues to play a critical role with health literacy at your organization. Our Community of Interest offers webinars, an e-newsletter, a listserv, a program day, and opportunity for collaboration. COI members are encouraged to integrate the following techniques to increase health literacy in their community:

  • Join or form a health literacy team.
  • Raise awareness in your community of the library as a resource for health information literacy.
  • Share easy-to-read materials.  Write, design and use materials at or below 6th grade reading level.
  • Provide culturally and linguistically appropriate materials and services.
  • Teach health information literacy workshops at your hospital.
  • Help to disseminate existing communication tools and resources for patients.
  • Partner with local community groups to highlight your library's resources and services.
  • Collaborate with Adult Basic Education.
  • Create health literacy repositories or collections
    • Such as insurance forms and instructions, informed consent and other legal documents, after care and medication instructions, and patient education materials in several languages.
    • Review the materials with members of the taret population.
  • Teach health literacy principles. Use teachable moments to share techniques:
    • Use plain language.  Slow down.  Limit instructions.
    • Encourage patients to ask questions.  Teach-back. Have patients tell you what you just told them to make sure they understand your treatment instructions.
    • Welcome patients with helpful attitude and signs.
    • Offer a brown bag medication review
    • Use health education materials effectively.  Get patient feedback.

The National Action Plan for Health Literacy and the AHRQ Universal Precautions Toolkit will inform our work. The tips above are from the action plan and toolkit. The Health Literacy Community of Interest will foster new health information literacy roles and collaborations for health sciences librarians and other network members.

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Watch recordings of our webinars: