Improving Your Health Literacy

Home > Articles > Improving Your Health Literacy
By Karen Henry

When faced with a life-altering diagnosis that results in a limb amputation or reduced mobility, coming to terms with the diagnosis can be overwhelming enough. Achieving a broad understanding of the diagnosis and treatment options is beyond the grasp of many. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the language of healthcare is confusing at best—and downright frightening at worst.

Unfortunately, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, more than one-third of American adults have limited health literacy—the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions. Limited health literacy does not discriminate; to varying degrees it affects adults in all income, age, ethnic, and education groups.

And yet, health literacy is critically important. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), poor health literacy is "a stronger predictor of a person's health than age, income, employment status, education level, and race" (Report on the Council of Scientific Affairs, Ad Hoc Committee on Health Literacy for the Council on Scientific Affairs, American Medical Association, JAMA, Feb. 10, 1999).

There are a number of initiatives underway to encourage healthcare professionals to provide information in ways that their patients can more easily understand, but health literacy is a two-way street. Patients also have a responsibility to clearly communicate their needs and concerns to their healthcare providers. The National Patient Safety Foundation (NPSF) identifies the three most important questions patients should ask whenever they visit a healthcare provider: What is my main problem? What do I need to do? Why is it important for me to do this? And while most healthcare providers will do their best to provide answers that are easy to understand, patients must be persistent in asking follow-up questions if they don't understand what they need to do.

Improving health literacy is only possible when there is effective communication between patients and their healthcare providers. Not only does health literacy help people to choose healthcare providers that are best able to meet their needs, it also helps people understand their diagnoses, evaluate and choose among various treatment options, and more effectively manage their medical conditions. In short, it results in better outcomes.


We incorrectly identified the students in one of the images we used to illustrate the article "Academy Meeting Thrives Despite Shaky Economy" (May 2009,) in the print issue. The two women in the image are not high school students; they are (from left) Nikta Pirouz, a graduate student in the master of science in prosthetics and orthotics (MSPO) program at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), and Georgia Tech MSPO graduate Kali Marquardt. This mixup is corrected online in the article linked above.