Health Literacy 101

Doctor using health literacy

A patient visits a health practitioner at a specialized clinic and is confused by the diagnosis. In the same clinic, a person is having two prescriptions refilled and is unclear about the instructions that each medicine addresses. And down the hall from the pharmacy, a person who underwent a surgical procedure a couple of weeks ago is expressing concern to a clinic staff member over why the person’s health insurance only covered 25% of the procedure’s cost rather than the whole amount.

Each of these situations is an example of a person who doesn’t have strong or developed health literacy, as well as examples of a health care organization or staff not informing and communicating key health procedures. The initial practitioner could’ve explained that the diagnosis is accurate but in easier-to-understand terms to the patient. The pharmacist could’ve taken a few minutes to explain the differences between both medications and how the patient should take them. And the administrator, as well as the health insurance provider, could’ve explained to the patient in more specific, clear terms about how much the patient would likely have to pay after surgery was completed.

Health literacy is important as it enables individuals to be knowledgeable about their health care and have the necessary information to make decisions that impact them and their lives. Here’s more information about health literacy and how it’s important for patients, practitioners and health care organizations.

What Is Health Literacy?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Health literacy is the degree to which individuals can obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” This can include being able to research symptoms online, health insurance providers disclosing new updates or modifications to their plans, and patients understanding information from a doctor about the benefits and drawbacks of two separate elective surgery procedures.

Health literacy is important because it helps individuals understand issues that may affect their health, as well as the services and guidelines available for them to receive treatment. But several barriers may impede someone from obtaining or reaching comprehensive health literacy. For example, a person who’s experiencing difficulties with vision may mistakenly believe that the insurance policy doesn’t provide coverage for glasses or optometric services and choose not to seek treatment because of not wanting to pay out of pocket. Or, a family that has recently immigrated to the United States may not understand the specific roles and responsibilities of health care staff providing treatment to one of their family members and remain unsure of who’ll be providing treatment or when. Finally, an individual who lives in a rural community may not have easy access to a medical facility or a reliable method of researching symptoms and may experience a decline in health as a result.

Health literacy is used in personal and professional circumstances when individuals can obtain a more well-rounded understanding of their health and the services available to them. This can include doctors answering all questions about a patient’s health condition or recent diagnosis and insurance providers illustrating specific benefits of different packages through examples and scenarios. The time and effort to provide effective health literacy is small compared with the long-lasting benefits it yields.

Health Literacy Tips and Resources for Patients

There are many tips and resources to help individuals obtain more comprehensive health literacy. Here are specific tips and resources for health literacy across different health care areas.

Understanding Medical Billing

After undergoing surgery, a person receives a lengthy hospital bill for specific items provided during the procedure and recovery. The bill is larger than expected, and the person doesn’t know why there are charges for certain medicines and resources.

Understanding medical billing is a crucial part of health literacy and is important to anyone who receives health services from a clinic or a facility. MedlinePlus, a resource available from the U.S. National Library of Medicine, suggests that individuals ask hospitals for a comprehensive bill that lists all the items and services that they’ve received.

MedlinePlus also recommends that individuals with health insurance understand the difference between deductibles and copayments and how both of these can impact medical treatment costs. MedlinePlus state that a deductible is the amount of money paid to cover medical care expenses annually before insurance policies begin paying claims. Coinsurance is the amount paid for medical care after meeting the health insurance deductible.

Hospitals and health care organizations can make mistakes in their billing procedures. Those at issue with certain charges that may be inaccurate or too high should discuss them with the facility. For example, some hospitals may charge a patient for each day spent in recovery after a procedure. If admitted to the hospital at 12:01 a.m., a person may be accidentally charged by hospital staff for the day prior, even though that person didn’t receive any services that day. The patient should review bills carefully to ensure that charges are accurate for the services received. This type of health literacy should also be used to review overpayments for a service, double billings or other add-on charges, as well as making sure that the health facility itself is providing services comparable in cost to those offered by other health care providers. Medline Plus also suggests that individuals who may be having trouble paying their medical bills contact the organizations where they received treatment to see if other payment options and plans are available.

Communicating with Practitioners

Doctors and other health practitioners may see dozens of patients in a single day and have other administrative and professional duties. As a result, some practitioners may not effectively communicate information about concerns, diagnoses, medications and necessary procedures to patients.

This is why patients should improve their health literacy by asking questions to get as much information as possible about their conditions and treatment. The National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health recommends that patients ask their specialists questions about their conditions, treatment recommendations and procedures, as well as if their specialists will communicate with their primary doctors. The National Institute on Aging also recommends that patients ask similar questions when speaking with surgeons, such as about the success rates of operations and the types of anesthesia they may receive, as well as seek a second opinion for more serious procedures and illnesses.

Noninvasive Procedure Awareness

When hearing that they’ve been diagnosed with a medical condition or illness, many patients may start to think about what surgery they may need. However, many medical conditions can be treated with noninvasive procedures.

A market research report from MarketWatch notes how the minimally invasive surgery market is expected to grow until 2022, thanks in large part to new technologies. This means that a range of afflictions across orthopedic, gastrointestinal, vascular and other types of health fields are becoming increasingly addressed by minimal or noninvasive methods. Patients must note that minimal or noninvasive procedures aren’t safer or the best courses of action. Rather, the emergence of these procedures is showing patients that alternative options exist.


A person receives a prescription to treat a mental health issue. The person’s health literacy isn’t developed about the medication and how it helps with the issue. The person may not understand the doses or instructions and is unsure of how to contact the practitioner or pharmacist to find answers for these concerns.

The National Institute on Aging recommends that when receiving a prescription, patients should ask their practitioners questions relating to the medicine’s name, use, cost and effectiveness, as well as other instructions, such as duration, hazards and side effects. These questions may also be answered by a pharmacist. Writing for Harvard Health Publishing, Heidi Godman notes that for concerns regarding paying for a prescription or medicine, individuals should consider taking generic forms, consider purchasing in larger or bulk amounts, determine if they qualify for assistance plans and research which prescriptions may be less expensive at other locations.

Mobility Aids, Diabetic Monitors, Sharps and Other Health Accessories

A person who’s having mobility issues receives a motorized wheelchair that helps in personal transport. The person’s excited to use the chair, but when the device starts having mechanical issues with its motor and charging capabilities, the person isn’t capable of doing the necessary repairs.

Health literacy is important regarding medical devices and home health accessories. Patients should seek relevant information about their specific devices. For example, blood glucose meters are helpful devices that can enable individuals with diabetes to monitor their blood glucose levels. The Mayo Clinic notes how individuals seeking to purchase or obtain a blood glucose meter should get information about their insurance coverage and the special features, cost and support for the device.

Math and Literacy Skills

Health literacy can be as simple as interpreting text and numerical information. For example, an individual may receive a prescription for a medication of 300 milligrams (three 100-milligram pills) in the morning and 300 milligrams (three 100-milligram pills) before bed. Individuals may be confused about the timing and dosage requirements or mix this medicine with others they’re taking. For those individuals not understanding medical terminology or processes, it’s important for them to ask questions about how health language is presented or illustrated.

Health Literacy Tips and Resources for Practitioners

Strong health literacy can also be achieved with the help of doctors, specialists and practitioners.

Embracing Cultural Competence

Practitioners must practice cultural competence and be mindful of patients’ backgrounds when providing health information. Patients may be accustomed to the health practices of their home countries or areas. Others may not be willing to get certain medical procedures due to religious, ideological and other beliefs.

“A culturally competent health care system is one that acknowledges the importance of culture, incorporates the assessment of cross-cultural relations, recognizes the potential impact of cultural differences, expands cultural knowledge, and adapts services to meet culturally unique needs,” according to the American Hospital Association.

Use Plain Language

An article published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care reported that “”This study revealed that communication skills are the most important aspects of professionalism which greatly affected in the process of health care provided by the primary care doctors”.

Practitioners often have to communicate with other health professionals through complex medical language and information. When speaking with patients, they may continue to use that same complicated language despite patients not having a medical background. Practitioners should communicate a diagnosis, treatment and medication in simple terms to ensure that a patient or person understands.

Organizing and Presenting Information

A practitioner gives a diagnosis to a patient and explains the treatment that the patient will receive. But over the following days and weeks, the practitioner’s office receives several phone calls from the patient asking for clarification about procedures and when they would take place and how long the recovery process would be, despite the practitioner going over this information during the initial diagnosis.

Practitioners should consider how they package and present information to their patients. The doctor described above could’ve broken down the treatment process in easier-to-understand segments. The doctor could’ve also provided additional reading information for the patient to refer to after leaving the facility. Even when doctors are providing the full information available, taking that extra step to organize the info in an easy-to-understand way will benefit their patients.

Increasing Health Literacy

Health literacy isn’t just providing information; it’s also taking the extra step to make sure the patient or person understands. Advancements in technology in health care have enabled practitioners to provide more extensive, comprehensive care, but health literacy is still fundamental to ensuring that patients experience the best outcomes possible.


American Hospital Association, Becoming a Culturally Competent Health Care Organization

Harvard Health Publishing, “7 Ways to Save Cash on Prescription Drugs”

Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, “Physicians’ Professionalism at Primary Care Facilities from Patients’ Perspective: The Importance of Doctors’ Communication Skills”

Mayo Clinic, Blood Glucose Meter: How to Choose

MedlinePlus, Understanding Your Hospital Bill

National Institute on Aging, Safe Use of Medicines for Older Adults

National Institute on Aging, Talking with Medical Specialists: Tips for Patients

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Quick Guide to Health Literacy”