Health literacy is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions and services needed to prevent or treat illness.”
Nearly half of all American adults – 90 million people – have difficulty understanding and using health information. That results in higher rates of hospitalization, and emergency services, according to a report by the Institute of Medicine titled Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion.
Low health literacy is more prevalent among
- Older adults
- Minority populations
- Those who have low socioeconomic status
- Medically underserved people
Limited health literacy may lead to billions of dollars in avoidable health care costs. Other consequences include poor health outcomes, medication errors, preventable emergency room visits and hospitalizations and premature death.
For these reasons, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is emphasizing health literacy, with a new website to provide “information and tools to improve health literacy and public health.”
Health literacy addresses the capacity to comprehend prescriptions, appointment slips, hospital admission policies, health insurance and financial eligibility information – the ability to navigate the health care system. Health literacy also focuses on how those abilities influence individual health care decision-making.
Improving health literacy is also tied to the basic literacy ability of Americans. Almost half of adults in the U.S. read below an 8th grade level. In fact, health literacy is a better predictor of one’s health status than age, income, employment, ethnicity, or education level.
The Reading Health Program & the Health Literacy Institute
The Reading Health Program began in 2007 with foundation funding to improve the health literacy of physicians and other medical care givers at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center.
St. Vincent Charity has since established a Health Literacy Institute, with foundation support, made up of a team of caregivers who are dedicated to improving health through better communication.
Project: LEARN provides training, including plain language writing techniques to St. Vincent Charity staff. The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland was awarded its “Friends of Literacy Award,” on March 11, 2011