Six smart ways to increase your health literacy


To improve your health literacy, ask your health care provider to use familiar, non-technical language.

What exactly is health literacy, anyway?

Health literacy, according to the National Institutes of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine, describes how well people can find, navigate and understand the services and information they need to make good health care decisions. This is a complex process affected by multiple components, including:

  • access to clear information;
  • the research, communications and vocabulary skills of both health care providers and patients;
  • mental and physical abilities and factors like age, education, language and culture; and
  • the often overwhelmingly complicated structure of many health care and insurance systems.

Just about everyone has been affected by health literacy problems at one time or another. If you’ve ever found yourself puzzled by a health care provider’s instructions, or confused by directions on a medication bottle, or unclear about how to schedule a follow-up appointment or file an insurance form, then you, like most Americans, have experienced some difficulty with health literacy. In fact, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, experts estimate that only 12 percent of U.S. adults have a level of health literacy that would be considered “proficient” — the combination of skills and access needed, for example, “to search through a complex document to find the meaning of a particular medical word.”

In contrast, 36 percent of the population, or more than 90 million U.S. adults, have low health literacy, which can harm their health in a number of ways. Low health literacy negatively affects people’s ability to make good health decisions. It can also make it harder for them to manage chronic diseases or to lead a healthy lifestyle in general. People with low health literacy end up in the hospital more frequently and tend to have poorer overall health and higher death rates.

Arkansas’ challenge

The proportion of people in Arkansas with low health literacy is 37 percent of the adult population, somewhat higher than the national average. Overall, this problem costs the state up to $3 billion each year. Lower health literacy consistently correlates with higher health care costs per person.

“Arkansas has done a lot of good work, but we need to do more,” said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, medical advisor for health literacy and medical director for immunization at Arkansas Department of Health. “There are two ways for health care providers to approach health literacy.” “You can help improve people’s skills at getting information and using the health system and knowing what they need to do to take good care of their families. But you can approach it, too, from the health system point of view, of not setting things up so that they’re full of jargon and difficult for people to understand and navigate.”

Dillaha also serves on the National Academy of Medicine’s Round Table on Health Literacy, which provides evidence-based advice and support to health care agencies, providers and organizations nationwide on how to use better teaching, communications and design techniques to improve health literacy.

“Then people can get that information and digest it,” says Dillaha. “If we can explain it in a way that they can understand it, they can get it.”

Steps to take

As a patient or caregiver, there are also smart steps you can take. The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends six ways to understand important health information better:

  1. Write down or record information during appointments;

    Recording information during an appointment can be helpful.

  2. Ask health care personnel to use familiar, non-technical language;
  3. Ask questions if something is not clear;
  4. Let your doctor and others who care for you know if you can’t understand what they are telling you;
  5. Work with your library or other community organizations to create educational programs and raise health literacy;
  6. Talk to elected officials about the programs and services your community needs to improve health literacy.


A.D. Lively is a Little Rock-based writer specializing in health and wellness.