How Do You Increase Health Literacy?


Aug 16


The fact that only 18% of adult Americans have proficient health literacy (1) illustrates that there is currently a gap between the health information presented to patients and their ability to understand and use this information.

In our last blog post, we addressed the impact of health literacy on accessing health care, but what are some strategies medical providers can implement to improve health literacy?

Below are two suggestions to address the issue: modify the information presented to patients, and/or increase patients’ ability to understand the resources. The most effective solution (which we strive to implement at CommunityHealth) combines these two strategies.

Modify the Information

When communicating information to patients, our volunteers focus on plain language, both in writing and speaking. This may include simplifying written materials, as well as adding graphics, videos, and picture-based instructions. It’s also important to remember that “plain” language is not universal—it differs between cultural and ethnic groups. For more information about plain language and how to develop materials, see these resources.

Cultural competency , or “the ability to recognize the cultural beliefs, values, attitudes, traditions, language preferences, and health practices of diverse populations” (2), is prioritized at CommunityHealth. When volunteers provide care (not only medical, but also dental and mental health services), we strive to ensure that everyone’s practice is culturally competent.

Josue Reynaga, one of our volunteer Spanish interpreters, said, “The need for multilingual and culturally sensitive medical providers is dire. I believe CommunityHealth does an outstanding job at training the next generation of physicians in tackling this obstacle.”

In 2013, Jill Rosno-Huded, a Schweitzer Fellow and volunteer medical resident at the time, spearheaded a project to revise CommunityHealth’s patient education handouts with health literacy and cultural competency in mind. Rosno-Huded and her team updated handouts in English, Spanish, and Polish on topics such as hypertension, diabetes, stress, and depression in appropriate and easy-to-understand language. Many of those handouts can be found here.

Increase Patients’ Literacy

In order to increase patients’ ability to understand the resources given to them, CommunityHealth offers several health education classes, targeted to specific populations, on health-related issues such as cooking, diabetes, and women’s wellness. Adelle White, Health Education Manager, said the cooking classes are both the most popular and the ones in which she sees the most dramatic results. “After 6 weeks of cooking and learning together, their nutrition literacy just jumps through the roof,” she said. “It is hands-on, and we focus a lot on label-reading. So while cooking, they are regularly looking at the labels and asking ‘What’s actually in this?’”

Finally, the very fact that CommunityHealth is a medical home that matches patients with primary care providers (PCP) helps patients better understand. Research shows that the rate of health literacy increases with having a PCP because patients are more likely to develop a relationship with their provider and often feel more comfortable asking questions.

Although low health literacy is a complex issue, CommunityHealth is working to empower its patients so they can understand their health and become partners in taking care of it.