Health literacy is a term prone to a wide range of interpretations. The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Healthy People 2030 initiative provides an officially recognized definition of 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.”1 It seems like a fairly simple concept, but it’s more complex than many realize. At ActiveHealth, we think of health literacy as the ability to find, understand and use health information, but also to apply it within the context of our familial and cultural traditions to define what health means to each of us individually.
Improving health literacy is fundamental to the work ActiveHealth does with our members in terms of empowering better health with everyone we touch. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 9 out of 10 adults struggle to understand health information when it’s presented in complex and unfamiliar terms.2 It can be difficult even for people who read well. Imagine how overwhelming it must seem to the 26.5 million Americans who are only able to read simple sentences and how impossible it is for the more than 8 million others who cannot even read at that level.3 It’s critical that we offer health information in clear, easy-to-understand terms.
Improving health literacy doesn’t end with committing to the use of plain language, though that does contribute to helping people find and understand health information. The next principle is the ability to use information to make health decisions for themselves and others. Not every health decision centers around choosing whether to receive health care or what kind. We all make multiple health decisions every day, though we don’t always think about them in that way. What you’re eating and how much, whether you’re active or not, whether you use tobacco or alcohol and whether you’re fostering healthy relationships are all health decisions.
How we take health information that’s readily available to us and apply it within our lives is the next, most important part of health literacy, and it’s different for everyone. Respecting long-standing familial and cultural traditions while making healthier choices can be a delicate balance. In our work, we don’t focus just on checking off a list of prioritized health actions. We relate the health action to what’s important to the person we’re working with in the context of their lives. We work to help each person affirm their sense of self and belonging to their family and community while ensuring they have the understanding and support to make choices that are beneficial to their health in the long term.
These beneficial choices at the individual level flow often into that person’s extended circle. Here’s how one member describes this effect: “I never realized how unhealthfully my family and I were eating. They have followed my lead with eating healthier, making healthier choices and being more physically active.” Health literacy can have real-world individual, familial and community impacts, one choice at a time. It all begins with understanding.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Health Literacy? Available at https://www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/learn/index.html. Accessed June 7, 2022. 2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Talking Points About Health Literacy. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/healthliteracy/shareinteract/TellOthers.html. Accessed June 7, 2022. 3 U. S. Department of Education. Adult Literacy in the United States. Available at https://web.archive.org/web/20200730223012/https:/nces.ed.gov/datapoints/2019179.asp. Accessed June 7, 2022.