BMN Blog

SEP 11
The Health Literacy Gap

Studies have shown that almost 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using the health information they receive.[1]  This difficulty reflects a gap in patients’ capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and the services needed to make appropriate health decisions. In other words, the studies reflect a gap in health literacy. 


Poor health literacy can result in, among other things, failure to use preventive services, poor management of chronic conditions, poor medication adherence, and an increase in preventable hospitalizations. Poor health literacy is also associated with patients viewing their own health status less favorably. Good health literacy fosters not only patient satisfaction, but also more favorable clinical outcomes.


Efforts have been underway for a number of years to address the health literacy gap, with mixed results. One such effort is the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, which “seeks to engage organizations, professionals, policymakers, communities, individuals, and families in a linked, multisector effort to improve health literacy.”[2]  This ambitious plan seeks to build a more health literate nation, beginning with “accurate, standards-based, and developmentally appropriate health and science information and curricula in child care and education through the university level.”[3] But, with the explosion in patients’ access to health information from a myriad of new sources - such as patient portals, web sites, and social media - patients today struggle with, and are sometimes overwhelmed by, trying to apply the information they receive in a way that helps them effectively assist in managing their own health. 


In addition to patients today having access to a much greater volume of health information than in the past, health information is often presented in ways that are complex and unfamiliar, and therefore difficult for patients to understand. Accordingly, the health literacy gap affects patients of all ages, education levels, and socioeconomic backgrounds, not just those with limited general literacy skills. Therein lies the opportunity for health care providers to foster patient understanding through clear, plain language communication and soliciting patient feedback. Fortunately, health care providers can draw upon a number of sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that offer low or no-cost training and materials designed to help more effectively communicate health information to patients who have increasingly diverse educational and cultural backgrounds.[4]


With public health policy being increasingly driven by the notion of consumers taking an active role in managing their own health in partnership with health care providers, the challenge is not simply to help consumers keep pace with the increased health information to which they have access, it is to help them catch up and overcome the existing gap in health literacy. That will undoubtedly continue to be a challenge for years to come but is a challenge well worth taking up in the movement toward patient-centered care.


[1] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (2010).  National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, Washington, D.C.

[2] Id. at 1.

[3] Id. at 2

[4] See e.g.,

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