How to be health literate

Health literacy refers to our ability and motivation to access health resources, interact with it (understand, evaluate, use) and thereby take ownership of health decisions that concern us (WHO, 1998, p. 10).  Our health behavioural decisions are influenced by our cultural and societal norms and expectations, as well as the economic and environmental structures within which we live.  Health literacy efforts must therefore utilize more than communication and education to bring about positive behavioural and attitudinal changes.


Why is it important to be health literate?

Health literacy applies to both disease prevention and disease care.  Being health literate enables us to:

  • Read, evaluate and make use of health-related information in magazines, television and radio programs, and brochures from health organizations
  • explain symptoms to medical professionals
  • discuss health concerns with medical professionals, such as disease risk factors, prevention and management strategies, side-effects of medication and the use of traditional and/or herbal remedies for treatment
  • understand and follow medical professionals’ recommendations
  • read medication labels and take the appropriate dosage
  • fill out health insurance forms

Being health literate is of benefit to us as individuals to make decisions about our own health and also to provide support and care for others, such as children and the elderly and to help them make health-related decisions.


Effects of low health literacy

Research across a range of cultural settings, ages and socio-economic demographics show that low health literacy is linked to:

  • Lower knowledge about the disease causes and effects
  • Lower knowledge about practical steps to prevent or manage the disease
  • Low self-rating of health status
  • Increased use of medical services
  • Patients with low health literacy are more likely to have severe disease associated complications and are more likely to need hospitalization.
  • For diabetics, poor health literacy is further associated with poor management of blood pressure and blood sugar levels and increased prevalence of retinopathy.


How to become more health literate

To become more health literate and thereby make better informed health-related decisions, you can:

Ask your health professional questions: your health is your priority, and if you are not sure about any aspect of your healthcare, you should ask

Ask your health professional to slow down if they are speaking too fast.  Similarly, ask them to speak up if they are speaking too softly.

Repeat what you have understood: health professionals sometimes use terms and phrases that are difficult for us to understand.  Tell your health professional what you understood and they can clarify if there is a misunderstanding.

Support yourself: If you are more comfortable in a language other than English, see if you could take an adult with you who could be your interpreter and also a support person.  You can ask (or have someone ask on your behalf) the health centre to organise a free interpreter for you.

Expand your support network: Ask your health professional for support groups and organizations that you could contact and have a wider support network.  Research shows that having a strong positive and empathetic support network can improve our confidence and outlook on life as well as contribute  to faster recovery from illnesses.


Research on health literacy consulted for this article

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Improving Health Literacy for Older Adults: Expert Panel Report 2009. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2009.

Egbert, N., & Nanna, K. M. (2009). Health literacy: Challenges and strategies.The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing14(3).

Gazmararian, J. A., Williams, M. V., Peel, J., & Baker, D. W. (2003). Health literacy and knowledge of chronic disease. Patient education and counseling,51(3), 267-275.

Hewitt, M. (Ed.). (2011). Improving Health Literacy Within a State:: Workshop Summary. National Academies Press.

Improving Your Health Literacy. September 2010. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.

Kim, S., Love, F., Quistberg, D. A., & Shea, J. A. (2004). Association of health literacy with self-management behavior in patients with diabetes. Diabetes care27(12), 2980-2982.

Kutner, M., Greenburg, E., Jin, Y., & Paulsen, C. (2006). The Health Literacy of America’s Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy. NCES 2006-483. National Center for Education Statistics.

Nutbeam, D. (2000). Health literacy as a public health goal: a challenge for contemporary health education and communication strategies into the 21st century. Health promotion international15(3), 259-267.

Omachi, T. A., Sarkar, U., Yelin, E. H., Blanc, P. D., & Katz, P. P. (2013). Lower health literacy is associated with poorer health status and outcomes in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Journal of general internal medicine,28(1), 74-81.

Schillinger, D., Grumbach, K., Piette, J., Wang, F., Osmond, D., Daher, C., … & Bindman, A. B. (2002). Association of health literacy with diabetes outcomes. Jama288(4), 475-482.

World Health Organization (WHO) (1998) Division of Health Promotion, Education and Communications Health Education and Health Promotion Unit. Health Promotion Glossary. World Health Organization, Geneva

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