Let us Talk Health Literacy

Health literacy has been identified as a priority area for national action in the United States, first by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as an objective for Healthy People 2010 (HHS, 2000), and again in the Institute of Medicine report Health Literacy. In addition, National Action Plan envisioned plans to provide everyone with access to accurate and actionable health information.

Without clear information and an understanding of prevention and self-management of conditions, people are more likely to skip necessary medical tests. They also end up in the emergency room more often, and they have a hard time managing chronic diseases. Health literacy deficits affect half the American patient population and are linked to poor health, ineffective disease management, and high rates of hospitalization. Restricted literacy has also been linked with less satisfying medical visits and communication difficulties, particularly in terms of the interpersonal and informational aspects of care. 

Limited health literacy affects people of all ages, races, incomes, and education levels, but the impact of limited health literacy disproportionately affects lower socioeconomic and minority groups. It affects people’s ability to search for and use health information, adopt healthy behaviors, and act on important public health alerts. Limited health literacy is also associated with worse health outcomes and higher costs. It is worth noting that people with limited health literacy—a third of U.S. adults—are at particularly high risk of poor health outcomes from chronic conditions. Currently, more than sixty percent of adults in the United States have a chronic condition, such as diabetes, hypertension, or depression, and 40 percent have multiple chronic conditions, and many adults are at risk of developing chronic conditions.

Health literacy has been identified as a priority area for national action in the United States:

First, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). According to HHS’ Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health, Health literacy is in the ACA because health policy makers recognized that activated and informed patients are on the critical path to increasing access to coverage and managing costs. These are the goals of the ACA. Health literacy is mentioned dozens of times, directly or indirectly, in the ACA because policy makers understand health care cannot be reformed in any meaningful way without health literate patients.

Secondly, the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy was launched in May 2010.

Thirdly, the Plain Language Act signed into law in October 2010 made all federal agencies practice what they preached.

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