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Defining Health Literacy

Health literacy involves the ability to understand and use health information. Several definitions of health literacy exist. This toolkit uses definitions from the Healthy People 2030 framework, which defines two components of health literacy — personal health literacy and organizational 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.”

One essential component of organizational health literacy is cultural and linguistic competence, which is the ability of healthcare providers and organizations to understand and respond to the cultural and linguistic needs of their community and populations served. Cultural and linguistic competence means organizations:

  • Value diversity
  • Adapt to and meet the cultural needs of the community
  • Continuously evaluate staff knowledge about culture
  • Work to improve cultural knowledge

Numeracy, or quantitative literacy, is the ability to understand and use numbers and problem-solving skills. Numeracy is an important component of health literacy because it includes the ability to read and understand nutrition labels, dietary information, medication dosages, and health information such as blood test results. It is also related to financial literacy skills such as understanding health insurance.

Digital health literacy, also known as eHealth literacy, is another element of health literacy that is increasingly important as more providers expand delivery of healthcare virtually. eHealth literacy has been defined “as the ability to appraise health information from electronic sources and apply the knowledge gained to addressing or solving a health problem.” Digital health literacy skills are necessary for people to take full advantage of telehealth services, including being able to use the internet, write and read emails, and use specific apps.

Several factors may influence digital health literacy, including:

  • Age
  • Health status
  • Access to technology and internet services
  • Educational attainment
  • Overall digital literacy
  • Individual motivation for seeking information

Resources to Learn More

Health Literacy
Compiles information, resources, and training materials for community members as well as public health and healthcare professionals to increase understanding and improve health literacy. Allows readers to sign up for weekly health literacy updates.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Health Literacy Research Findings and Insights: Increasing Organizational Capacity for Shaping Public Health Messages
A presentation discussing past, present, and emerging health literacy research; the correlation between health literacy and health outcomes; key variables used to measure health literacy skills; and ways to increase organizational capacity and improve public health communication.
Author(s): Rudd, R.
Organization(s): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Date: 4/2015

An Introduction to Health Literacy
Provides background information about health literacy, identifying the many aspects of health literacy and the related objectives from the Healthy People 2030 initiative. Discusses why health literacy is important and how to address health literacy in various populations.
Organization(s): National Library of Medicine (NLM)

Planning Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services
Includes information on why inclusion of multi-ethnic communities is important for addressing health literacy and how developing culturally and linguistically appropriate services for multi-ethnic populations is beneficial.
Organization(s): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)