The National Academies’ Health and Medicine Division (formerly known as the Institute of Medicine) defines health literacy as the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.1  The key phrase is “the ability to make appropriate health decisions”. That means making right decisions related to health on things we do everyday such as eating healthy and maintaining a healthy home. It may also mean following directions for medications and preparation for medical procedures. Unfortunately, 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using health information for everyday health decisions. 1, 2  

Low health literacy has implications not only for individuals but also for health care providers, acute and community care organizations, employers, government agencies, and insurers. Poor health outcomes and costly emergency room visits are associated with low health literacy.1 In his introduction in the National Action Plan To Improve Health literacy3, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health Dr Howard Koh writes improving health literacy is key to the success of America’s national health agenda.



1. Nielsen-Bohlman, L., Panzer,  A. M., & Kindig, D. A. (Eds.). (2004). Health literacy: A prescription to  end confusion. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. 

2. Kutner, M., Greenberg, 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).  Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education  Statistics.

3.  U.S. Department of Health and Human  Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2010). National  Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. Washington, DC.  Accessed on June 5, 2018.

To start:

The health literacy web site by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a great place to start. This comprehenisive site has everything you need from best practices to regulations and local resources.

Need more data

The Health Literacy Tool Shed is an online database of health literacy measures coordinated by health literacy experts and funded by the National Institute of Health's National Library of Medicine.

Around Town

Check out projects and subject experts by health literacy advocates in Massachusetts.

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