What is Health Literacy?

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services in order to make appropriate health care decisions (Healthy People 2020). It requires basic reading skills and the ability to comprehend oral communication, as well as using numbers and math. It also entails knowing how to navigate the healthcare system and communicate with health care providers. These skills are necessary in order to:

Health Literacy Cloud Map
  • Communicate health concerns to provider
  • Read prescriptions and understand treatment plans
  • Implement self-care strategy and manage health
  • Understand warning labels and potentially life-threatening complications
  • Comprehend health insurance forms, informed consent, and public assistance applications

Learn more about the basics of health literacy, including understanding health literacy and numeracy at Health Literacy Basics (CDC).


History of Health Literacy Definitions

In recent years, a growing number of people have advocated for increasing the focus on the organizational aspect of health literacy. In developing Healthy People 2030, the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives for 2030 proposed expanding Healthy People’s view on health literacy:

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

The Impact of Low Health Literacy

It is estimated that nearly one-quarter of the U.S. population has low health literacy. Within that group, almost a third described their physical health as “fair” or “poor,” considerably higher than the general population. The cost of low health literacy to the U.S. economy is estimated to be between $106 billion and $238 billion per year (NIH).

Low health literacy is especially pronounced in North Carolina. State level estimates place North Carolina 41st in terms of ranking compared to other states (PIAAC). A disproportionate number of those with low health literacy are older adults, the medically underserved, and people with low socioeconomic status. Low health literacy is associated with:

  • Lack of knowledge and understanding of health conditions and services
  • Inability to implement appropriate self-care activities
  • Difficulty understanding medication instructions and adhering to treatment
  • Lower utilization of preventive care and services
  • Increased hospitalizations and health care costs
  • Worse health outcomes and increased mortality
Last modified: 09/09/21