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Stigma of Low Health Literacy

Stigma of low health literacy refers to shame, caused by others or perceived by patients, associated with the discovery of literacy ability. The stigma of low health literacy can impair patient-provider interactions and ultimately lead to poor health outcomes, such as unsafe or inappropriate use of medications and decreased use of preventive healthcare services.

Health literacy programs should consider the importance of words and terminology being used to describe the program and associated goals. For example, the terms “low literacy” and “illiterate” can carry negative connotations for people, as the idea of being illiterate or having limited literacy carries stigma. Using terms with negative connotations such as these are counterproductive to health promotion efforts.

Health literacy programs should use words that resonate with community members. For example, phrases such as “How do you stay healthy?” or “How can you follow your doctor's advice?” may be more favorable compared with saying, “How can you stay compliant?” Using simple terminology and avoiding complicated medical terms can help patients feel more comfortable and at ease about their health literacy level. It may also help them understand clinical information and advice: for example, referring to “high blood pressure” instead of “hypertension.”

To address stigma related to health literacy and misconceptions, programs may consider the following health literacy research findings:

  • Individuals should not be blamed for not understanding health information that is not clear
  • Everyone is at risk for not understanding health information at some point in time, depending on the circumstances and information being presented
  • People may be embarrassed to ask questions when they do not understand information, so it is important to not make assumptions about understanding
  • Misinformation is becoming increasingly prevalent, which can add to confusion and a lack of trust in health information that is presented

Resources to Learn More

The Stigma of Low Health Literacy in Healthcare
Toolkit intended for health professionals interested in learning more about health literacy and the skills and practices for improving health literacy among patients, with information about the impacts of stigma of low health literacy on patient-provider communication and patient outcomes.
Organization(s): Pacific University Libraries