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Understanding Health Literacy


If you were asked “What does it mean to be ‘health literate’?”, you might answer that it has something to do with understanding enough health-related information to be able to have a productive conversation with a healthcare professional.  According to the Health Literacy Institute at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center in Cleveland, being health literate means having the ability to find, understand, evaluate, communicate and use information about your health.

Many employers are working hard to help their employees achieve a high level of health literacy. Healthcare professionals have a vital role to play in this effort, as the Institute says, “by presenting information in ways that improve understanding and the ability of people to act on that information.”


Studies by the National Patient Safety Foundation show a correlation between low health literacy and poor health outcomes, including higher frequency of hospitalization and preventable use of emergency services. Not surprisingly, without a strong grasp of risk factors, patients are much less likely to be vigilant in their preventative efforts.

For example, patients that lack a clear understanding of their prescribed medications run a higher risk of encountering avoidable complications due to improper use. All of this results in higher costs for both employees and their employers.

The New England Health Care Institute notes that prescription drug non-adherence accounts for up to $290 Billion in excess healthcare costs annually. 


So, it’s not just about employers encouraging their employees to get smart about healthcare so they can make informed decisions when interacting with physicians and other clinicians. Employers should also be pushing healthcare providers to speak plainly when explaining a health issue to a patient and his or her loved one.  According to the Health Literacy Institute:

  • Up to 80 percent of medical information provided by healthcare providers is forgotten immediately by patients.

  • Almost half of the information that is remembered is incorrect.

  • Approximately 20 percent of American adults read at or below the fifth grade level. However, most health information materials are written at the tenth grade level.

Employees may do their homework on health issues, but could still find themselves at a disadvantage if their healthcare professional isn’t communicating information in a way that he or she can understand and act on.


One thing remains true for even the most health literate among us: We can always improve. Keeping up with new studies, frequent innovations and changing guidelines requires effort. Employers that effectively and persistently work to educate employees and lean on providers, support healthy choice initiatives like Choosing Wisely, and cultivate an environment that celebrates wellness are not only reducing healthcare costs, they are making a powerful impact on one of the biggest risks to public health.

If you want to learn more about how employers can improve health literacy, or for more information on Health Action Council membership, call Kevin Gregory at 216.236.0379, or email Kevin at [email protected].

Patty Starr bio image

About the author

Patty Starr

Patty Starr is president and CEO of Health Action Council and is responsible for driving the strategic direction of the organization--build stronger, healthier communities where business can thrive. 

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