How Poor Health Literacy Impacts Vulnerable Populations

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Health literacy is “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,” as defined by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V. In the United States, access to health information and the ability to understand vital health data impact the well-being of individuals across all social and income levels.

To learn more, check out the infographic below created by the Rider University Online Master of Arts in Health Communication program.

How having a poor health literacy can negatively impact an individual’s health and healthcare access.

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What Is Health Literacy?

Patients and health professionals need health literacy skills to communicate and make decisions about treatment and intervention plans. Health literacy requires a firm grasp of other skills, such as verbal communication and decision-making.

Health literacy skills can help patients locate services, communicate with health professionals, cultivate an understanding on the meaning, purpose, consequences and context of information and services, and ultimately determine the appropriate course of action regarding their health. Conversely, health literacy skills can help health professionals assist individuals find information and services, understand what individuals are searching for, gain competency in communicating useful information about services to others, and decide which information is relevant for an individual and situation.

Applying Health Literacy Skills

Health literacy skills are necessary to understand medical terms, the risks and benefits of a medication or treatment, diagnoses and test results, self-care guidelines, health issues affecting the community that are being voted on, and complex health care systems. That said, applying health literacy skills requires a host of other skills, including visual, computer, information, and numerical literacy, strong verbal communication skills, and strong decision-making competencies.

Factors Impacting Health Literacy

Having increased health literacy levels can correlate to individuals with higher income, advanced education, and greater professional success. Conversely, individuals with learning disabilities, elderly people in cognitive decline, and people with a lack of education may have difficulty developing health literacy skills. Overall, health literacy can impact several aspects of an individual’s life, such as income level, occupation, education, housing, and access to medical care.

Gaps and Challenges in Improving Health Literacy

Risks associated with poor literacy levels include worse health outcomes and greater spending on health care services. To create strategies for improving health literacy, it’s important to understand how health information is disseminated.

Risks Associated with Poor Health Literacy

Poor health literacy is associated with a higher risk of poor disease outcomes, emergency room visits, hospitalization, incorrectly taking medicines, making poor decisions regarding treatment, and death. Additionally, poor health literacy is associated with a lower likelihood of obtaining flu shots, obtaining preventive care, and understanding medical labels, physician’s instructions, and informed consent documents. Other negative effects of poor health literacy include an increased use of health care services and greater health care spending as well as a higher utilization of expensive health care services.

Disseminating Health Information

To improve health literacy, individuals need access to information. This can take the form of easy-to-read materials, multiorganizational collaborations, community health literacy programs, and health literacy seminars. Individuals also need access to technology in order to boost health literacy. Some of the tech-driven tools that can deliver this access include smartphones, nutrition and fitness apps, fitness trackers and smartwatches, and patient portals.

Resources and Strategies for Narrowing the Gap

Low health literacy costs the U.S. economy between $106 billion and $238 billion every year. Fortunately, many government organizations are working toward increasing health literacy levels. Improving patient portals is one strategy that could help significantly boost health literacy.

Improving Patient Portals

Studies have shown that minority populations are less likely to use patient portals. To improve usability and increase adoption rates, patient portals should utilize certain design-driven strategies. These can include offering simplified text and audio formats, focusing on improving the design and user experience, avoiding or minimizing the use of acronyms and complex terminologies, and operating on a wide range of devices and browsers.

The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy

The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy was developed to help health information and library professionals improve health literacy. Some of the ways this is achieved is through training health care staff to share information with patients with tactics like simplified language, enhancing patient education materials, and disseminating health information and resources using existing communication tools.

Government Resources to Increase Health Literacy Levels

Numerous government organizations offer resources and materials for patients, health care providers, schools, libraries and community organizations to help improve health literacy among local populations. Some of these organizations include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Communication is the cornerstone and key to improving health literacy. Health care providers, government organizations and community organizations are working together to create easy-to-read materials, increase patient access to health information and improve patient-provider communications.