Four Strategies to Improve Health Literacy

October 21, 2021 | Stericycle Communication Solutions

Health literacy is critical to patient engagement since today’s healthcare consumers have many responsibilities in managing their health. According to the Center for Health Care Strategies, nearly 36 percent of adults in the United States have low health literacy.

nearly 36% of adults in the u.s. have low health literacy

October is Health Literacy Month—a time to recognize the importance of making health information easy to understand and the healthcare system easier to navigate. Before health systems can dive into how to improve health literacy, they must understand what it is, the factors that affect health literacy, and why it’s important to health outcomes.

What is Health Literacy?

The Institute of Medicine of National Academies defines health literacy as “the degree to which people can obtain, process, comprehend, and communicate basic health information and services needed so that they can make suitable decisions about their health.”

However, in August 2020, the definition of health literacy was updated with the release of the U.S. government’s Healthy People 2030 initiative.

Personal health literacy &emdash; the degree to which healthcare consumers can access, understand, and use information and services to inform decisions related to their health and that of others.

Organizational health literacy—the degree to which healthcare providers enable healthcare consumers to access, understand, and use information and services to inform decisions related to their health and that of others.

Factors That Affect Health Literacy

Various factors can affect one’s health literacy. The groups most likely to have low health literacy are:

Elderly patients

Patients of racial and ethnic minorities

Patients with low socioeconomic status or educational achievement

Patients with low English proficiency (LEP) and/or non-native English speakers

Even more, it’s important to know that even patients who are highly educated can still have health literacy issues, especially when:

The patient isn’t familiar with medical terminology.

The patient’s health concern revolves around a part of the body they don’t understand.

The patient has to interpret and understand statistics about the risks and benefits of a treatment or procedure.

The patient is diagnosed with a serious illness that makes them emotionally upset, scared, or concerned.

The patient has a health condition that requires complex self-care. 

Why is Health Literacy Important?

Health literacy is important for everyone—both patients and providers. In fact, according to the Center for Health Care Strategies, adults with low health literacy experience four times higher healthcare costs, six percent more hospital visits, and two day longer hospital stays compared to individuals with proficient health literacy.

low health literacy is estimated to cost the u.s. economy up to 236 billion dollars every year

A patient’s level of health literacy impacts their ability to:

Find doctors and services

Fill out medical paperwork and questionnaires

Choose an insurance plan

Share personal health information with healthcare providers

Understand treatment plans and discharge instructions

Take advantage of preventive services

Adhere to care plan and medications

Four Ways to Improve Health Literacy

While improving health literacy is a complex matter, here are four ways your health system can improve health literacy today.


Use Plain Language with Patients

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s important for healthcare professionals to use plain language when speaking to all patients &emdash; not just patients with poor health literacy. This means keeping instructions and information as straightforward as possible and refraining from medical terminology that isn’t widely understood. Key elements of plain language include:

Stating the most important information first

Breaking down complex information into understandable chunks

Using simple language and defining any medical terminology used

Using an active voice


Utilize Visual Aids

The use of visual aids, such as simple illustrations, images, informational graphics, and videos, can help patients learn more effectively and better understand health information. Visual aids can be excellent tools for reinforcing written or verbal health communication, especially since health information provided in stressful situations is less likely to be retained. 


Recommend the Use of Technology

Utilizing technologies such as patient portals, telemedicine solutions, and mobile applications can help healthcare providers connect with their patients more effectively and ultimately improve health literacy. In fact, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center, nearly 93% of Americans use the internet and 85% own a smartphone.

Patient portals—allow patients to access critical health information such as test results and treatment plans.

Telemedicine—assess and treat underserved patient populations, such as those with limited mobility or who live in rural areas.

Mobile apps—give patients multiple options for learning about and managing their health conditions. They can also collect personal health data to be shared with providers, provide general health information, and assist with preventive lifestyle strategies.


Build Community Connections

Improving health literacy expands beyond educating the patient. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that healthcare organizations partner with their local community to share important health information. For example, your facility could partner with local groups to drive awareness for seasonal flu shots, create a campaign to boost preventative screenings, or even offer educational classes on healthy eating and exercise.

How to Improve Health Literacy with Stericycle

Higher health literacy among patients is the key to improving health outcomes and the quality of healthcare. To learn about how we can support your initiatives to improve health literacy, visit our Health & Wellness Campaigns webpage.

Encourage patient engagement by communicating in their preferred language. Learn More

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