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Patients may not understand the information medical care providers give them for a number of reasons, but significant among them is poor healthcare literacy, which is the ability to understand health information and to use that information to make good decisions about health and medical care. Unfortunately, about 33% of the adult population in the United States has limited healthcare literacy. Yet, the need for this proficiency is greater than ever because medical care has become progressively more complex. Let us take a look at healthcare literacy facts and figures:

In addition to basic literacy skills, healthcare literacy requires understanding of health topics and number skills.1 Healthcare literacy is one of the strongest predictors of health status. In fact, studies of the issue show literacy as a stronger predictor of an individual’s health status than income, employment status, education level, and racial or ethnic group.2 Healthcare literacy influences people’s ability to:

  • Participate in the healthcare system (fill out complex forms, locate providers and services, etc)
  • Communicate information, such as health history, with providers
  • Manage self-care and chronic disease
  • Understand mathematical concepts (ie, probability and risk)1

The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, issued by the US Department of Education, estimated the healthcare literacy skills of adults based on the following categories: Below Basic, Basic, Intermediate, and Proficient. The study findings include:

  • Proficient health literacy was present in only 12% of adults
  • Nearly 9 of 10 adults may lack the necessary skills to manage their health and prevent disease
  • In the US, 14% of adults (30 million people) have Below Basic health literacy
  • Adults with Below Basic health literacy were more likely to report their health as poor (42%) and are more likely to lack health insurance (28%) compared to adults with Proficient health literacy
  • Lower average healthcare literacy was found among adults aged 65 and older compared to adults in younger age groups1,3

Strategies for improving patient communication and understanding include:

  • Using plain, nonmedical language
  • Showing or drawing pictures to enhance understanding
  • Encouraging questions2


  1. US Department of Health and Human Services.
  2. Weiss BD. Health literacy and patient safety: help patients understand. American Medical Association.
  3. National Coalition for Literacy.
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Last modified: July 22, 2021