Health literacy—defined as the ability of an individual to obtain, process, understand, and communicate about health information—contributes significantly to health outcomes and costs to the U.S. health-care system. Approximately one-quarter to one-half of U.S. adults struggle with health information, which includes understanding patient education materials, reading medication labels, and communicating with health-care providers. Low health literacy is more common among the elderly, those who speak English as a second language, and those of lower socioeconomic status. In addition to conceptualizing health literacy as an individual-level skill, it can also be considered an organizational or community-level ability.
Increased attention to the field of health literacy has resulted in debates about the definition and the best ways to assess health literacy; there is also a strong and growing movement within the field of health literacy research and practice to frame health literacy less as a deficit to overcome and more as an approach to empowering patients and improving outcomes. As health-care providers have recognized the importance of health literacy, workshops, and training programs have been developed and evaluated to improve the care of low-health-literate patients. Similarly, health promotion professionals have developed best practices for reaching low-health-literate audiences with traditional and new digital media, which can also increase access for patients with hearing or visual impairments. Additionally, recent policy changes in the United States, including those related to the Affordable Care Act, contribute to a greater focus and regulation of factors that impact health literacy. Researchers and practitioners together are advancing understanding of health literacy, its relationship to health outcomes and health-care costs, and improved strategies for improving the health of lower health literate patients. Development and review of health literacy pieces can aid in shared decision making and provide insights for patients on various health-care services.