Hamline News

October is Health Literacy Month

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.

  • According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12% of adults have proficient health literacy. This means that almost 9 out of 10 adults may lack the skills to manage their health and prevent disease.
  • Populations most likely to experience low health literacy:
    • Older adults
    • Racial and ethnic minorities
    • People with less than a high school degree or GED
    • People with low income levels
    • Non-native speakers of English
    • People with a compromised health status

People may speak English well, but still have low health literacy.


  • Low health literacy affects an individual's ability to:
    • Locate providers and services
    • Fill out complex forms
    • Understand mathematical concepts such as probability and risk
    • Share personal information, such as health history
    • Engage in self-care and chronic-disease management

People with low health literacy often have misinformation about the body, and the nature and causes of diseases.

  • Individuals with low health literacy skills are more likely to:
    • Skip preventative measures
    • Use emergency services
    • Have a higher incidence of preventable hospitalization
    • Have chronic conditions and are less able to manage them
    • Have a sense of shame and try to hide reading difficulties
  • Health literacy depends on a number of factors, including:
    • Communication skills of lay persons and professionals
    • Lay and professional knowledge of health topics
    • Culture
    • Demands of the healthcare and public health systems
    • Demands of the situation/context


  • Health literacy also includes numeracy skills. Individuals with low numeracy skills lack the ability to:
    • Calculate blood sugar levels and other health indicators
    • Measure medications
    • Understand nutrition labels
    • Calculate premiums, co-pays and deductibles


  • What is being done to help:
    • Locally -- The Minnesota Health Literacy Partnership helps coordinate health literacy efforts across the state.
    • The mission of the Partnership is to improve the health of all Minnesotans by promoting health literacy.
    • The Partnership's goals are:
      • to train health care providers about health literacy
      • to empower patients to ask for clear communication
      • to share health literacy resources
    • Nationally-Many National Organizations are working toward greater health literacy and cultural competency.
      • National organizations such as the Institute of Medicine, Agency of Health Quality and Research and the American Medical Association Foundation have tackled the issue with reports and educational campaigns.
      • The national Partnership for Clear Communication, supported by the Pfizer Foundation, has also developed a consumer campaign with material available free of charge for distribution by state or local organizations.
      • Accrediting agencies and patient safety organizations are starting to address health literacy issues in proposed standards and best practices.
      • Several national organizations are researching strategies to improve health literacy.


  • For more information contact Marcia Miller, Assistant Director of the Health Law Institute mmiller14@hamline.edu or 523-2625


This fact sheet was adapted U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Quick Guide to Health Literacy, http://www.health.gov/communication/literacy/quickguide/ (last visited Oct. 2, 2007), with help from the Minnesota Health Literacy Partnership http://healthlit.themlc.org/home.html.

Special thanks to the research assistance of Anna Schifsky.