How to Improve Health Literacy in the Internet Age

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Online Master of Public Health

Women discussing her health with a health care profession in his office.The internet has made medical knowledge more accessible to patients than ever before. However, health literacy still remains a challenge for many. Health literacy can mean everything from knowing where to ask for help to understanding information that is often expressed in complex medical terminology.

It is important for everyone to be able to access health care professionals and receive answers to their medical questions. Because of this, a number of professionals and organizations are involved in building health literacy strategies. Some of the most prominent entities involved in developing these strategies are government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Policymakers, health care organizations, public health nurses, community health workers, and health educators also contribute to health literacy in communities across the country.

These public health professionals and organizations study and determine how to improve health literacy among different populations and communities. Students and professionals who are interested in working toward improved health literacy should consider pursuing a specialized education, such as an advanced degree in public health.

What Is Health Literacy?

Health literacy is a key element of successful health care. According to the CDC, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 defines health literacy as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.” In a practical sense, health literacy consists of making sure individuals can access and understand the information and medical services they need.

With so many people in the United States who need medical care, it can be difficult for doctors, nurses, and health administrators to directly provide the necessary medical information to every patient. As a result, public health professionals are constantly studying how to improve health literacy and make medical knowledge and care accessible to all.

A significant aspect of health literacy is making medical knowledge equally accessible to people across a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and communities. Individuals follow health behaviors and make medical decisions based on what they and their fellow community members know. Due to this, ensuring community-level health literacy is an important part of public health experts’ work.

Examples of Health Literacy

While medical professionals provide health care, public health experts are responsible for enabling the public to obtain, process, and understand essential health information and basic health-related services.

Professionals who research how to improve health literacy and numeracy must realize how understanding health information and medical conditions can alter an individual’s ability to:

  • Take care of their body
  • Establish a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise and diet
  • Prevent disease
  • Understand a current illness and work toward recovery
  • Communicate with a primary care provider or specialist

Health professionals should also consider the different ways in which patients access medical information, and then work toward clear communication in each. This may include using a range of communication methods.

  • Mobile apps
  • Appointments with primary care providers or specialists
  • Appointment slips
  • Prescription drug instructions
  • Patient portals
  • Consent forms

Why Is Health Literacy Important?

The presence or lack of health literacy can drastically affect the health and wellness of an individual as well as the community they live in — from improving quality of care to influencing health policy.

For Individuals

Health literacy can have varying effects on a person’s health and wellness. One end of the health literacy spectrum involves accessing, understanding, and developing healthy habits. Establishing healthy eating and exercise habits is important for all individuals, beginning at a young age and continuing through adulthood. Healthy habits can directly correlate to preventing chronic illnesses. While some individuals may have genetic predispositions toward certain diseases, they may be able to prevent them if they have access to medical information and care.

Another element of health literacy consists of an individual’s ability to know when and how to access medical care for a chronic disease or terminal illness. If an individual does not understand their condition or a doctor’s instructions regarding medications, they may suffer unnecessarily.

For Communities

Poor health literacy can not only affect an individual’s health, but can impact families and communities as well.

A 2019 paper published by Dovepress studied the relationship between community-level literacy and how older adults understand and manage their diabetes. The exhaustive study followed 169,758 patients who were 65 years old or older and who had been newly diagnosed with the illness.

Throughout the study, experts “examined the relationship between community-level health literacy estimates and initiation of oral antihyperglycemic agents (OHA), receipt of flu shots, eye exams, Hemoglobin A1c tests, and lipid tests within 12 months post diabetes diagnosis.” The results showed that patients living in communities with high health literacy actively initiated OHA treatment. They also understood and reacted to their conditions at a higher rate than those in communities with lower health literacy.

This study and many others demonstrate that community awareness of a medical problem affects how individual patients access medical information and react to diagnoses.

In communities with high levels of smoking, for example, many individuals are not aware of the relationship between smoking and developing cancer. While some in these communities may have genetic tendencies toward developing cancerous cells and tissues, others develop cancer based on their own unhealthy habits.

If individuals are unaware of the correlation between certain personal behaviors and diseases, they may end up passing along unhealthy habits to their family and community members. This demonstrates that health literacy is important across all communities, particularly those that are underrepresented or do not have equal health care access.

For Policy

A lack of understanding of basic health concepts can negatively affect health care beyond the physician-patient dynamic. It can directly impact the formation of policies and the cost-effectiveness of care. Health educators and public health workers who advocate for health care policies can only provide effective information based on what they learn from the communities they work with.

Community health workers can assess individuals in different communities to determine what they understand regarding topics such as smoking and alcohol consumption, for example. After collecting and analyzing data, they can work with the local government to introduce a variety of measures.

  • Educational programs
  • High school and community college classes
  • Community awareness events
  • Training
  • Other services to meet the health needs of their communities

Community health workers and health educators who work to improve health literacy often collaborate with local governments to improve a community’s health resources. They can also advocate for the implementation of newer and more responsive health care policies that meet community members’ needs.

Health Literacy Statistics at a Glance

Statistics reinforce the importance of health literacy. According to the CDC, “Nine out of 10 adults struggle to understand and use health information when it is unfamiliar, complex, or jargon-filled.”

That means 90% of patients do not understand how to proceed when their doctor, nurse, health administrator, pharmacist, or other health care professional presents complicated verbal or written health information.

Patients may not comprehend what a health care professional is saying for a variety of reasons. They may have a physical disability, a learning disability, or a cognitive decline. Some patients may not have a high level of education and lack general literacy skills. According to The Nurse Practitioner journal, “Low health literacy is associated with patients who are older, have limited education, lower income, chronic conditions, and those who are non-native English speakers.” The journal reports that 80 million adults in the U.S. do not demonstrate health literacy.

Other patients may have advanced degrees in their field of study, but do not simply understand the information and instructions of a health care professional due to the use of complex language and medical jargon.

Impact on the Economy

Health illiteracy has a substantial negative impact on the American economy. According to the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, “Chronic illness is responsible for seven out of 10 deaths in the U.S. Three out of four Americans aged 65 and over are living with multiple chronic conditions.” When individual patients are not aware of how to treat certain medical conditions, those conditions can worsen and demand more medical services. On top of that, without health education, patients can develop other illnesses that evolve into chronic conditions.

71% of spending. The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society also reports, “The resource implications for caring for patients with these conditions are staggering. About two-thirds of all health care spending in the U.S. — 71% — is associated with caring for people with multiple chronic conditions.” When patients have multiple conditions, health care spending continues to grow.

7-17% of spending. Elderly individuals with multiple chronic conditions are not the only ones who impact the health care economy. According to the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, the “cost of low health literacy to the U.S. economy is between $106 billion and $238 billion annually. This represents between 7% to 17% of all personal health care expenditures.” The bulk of this cost comes from individuals who seek out unnecessary health care due to a lack of understanding or clear communication.

Health illiteracy not only negatively impacts the health and well-being of individuals, but also the financial wellness of the country as a whole.

Health Literacy in Different Communities

According to the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, health literacy rates differ across the general population. Individuals with lower education levels and economic status may not have equal access to medical information or care. The organization reports that the most vulnerable patients consist of minority low-income, older, and immigrant populations.

Individuals from different backgrounds may have difficulty understanding health conditions due to a language barrier. Immigrant populations, for example, may not speak the dominant language of their new country. They may not be able to find health care providers, much less visit one and successfully express their medical needs.

Those who study how to improve health literacy often conduct research based on individuals in different demographics. Patients in low-income populations may not have access to sources that inform them about their medical conditions. Even if they do understand their conditions, they may not have the financial ability to pay for regular visits to a primary care provider.

Individuals living in communities with lower levels of health literacy are less likely to:

  • Take medications correctly
  • Understand medical labels and prescription instructions
  • Get flu shots
  • Regularly visit a doctor for checkups
  • Seek out preventive care
  • Establish a healthy lifestyle and habits
  • Undergo cancer screenings

Health Literacy Tools for Health Care Providers

Professionals who are working throughout health care should recognize their role in promoting health literacy, and use various tools to help do so.

Medical Experts

Medical experts such as doctors, nurse practitioners, and nurses can implement a variety of tools in their facilities, such as research, training, and program planning. Medical facilities in different locations work with different communities. It is important for medical experts and administrators to train their staff to meet the needs of their patients, particularly focusing on the specific needs of different populations.

A range of measures can be used to determine a patient’s health literacy. To assess the ability to understand and pronounce common physiology terms, a care professional might use flashcards with a patient. Doctors who serve patients from a variety of backgrounds can use charts that convey information in multiple forms. If health workers speak multiple languages, they can reach a wider variety of patients. Health providers can also have translators on call.

Health care professionals can also implement direct communication strategies to encourage improved health literacy among their patient base. The CDC writes, “Clear communication means using familiar concepts, words, numbers, and images presented in ways that make sense to the people who need the information.” By taking the time to clearly explain medical conditions and medications, doctors can help improve their patients’ health literacy.

Public Health Experts

Public health experts such as health educators and community health workers devote their careers to researching how to improve health literacy. By investing in certain communities, public health workers use surveys to measure whether individuals understand how to deal with and treat different conditions, such as cancer or diabetes.

One purpose of community outreach and education is to enable public health experts to study a community, assess its health problems, and then implement education programs. For example, a 2018 study of a Filipino American community in Las Vegas discovered elevated percentages of hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes — 48%, 46%, and 25%, respectively. After these issues were identified, the experts determined that the main source of the problem was unhealthy eating and exercise behaviors. The study concluded, “Results of this survey will be used to develop future interventions for the Filipino American community in Las Vegas using the principles of community-based participatory research.”

If public health experts discover a community is lacking in knowledge of certain behaviors, medications, and treatments, or has an inability to access proper care, they can implement new strategies, from creating educational materials to promoting new policies.

Like medical experts, public health experts can reach a larger number of patients by using concise and simple language. Whether working with individuals who speak the same language or another, public health workers can use graphics, charts, and pictures to aid patient comprehension.

How Can a Person Improve His or Her Health Literacy?

Health literacy can seem like an abstract concept, but individuals can work toward improving their health literacy in simple ways, using different strategies to gain a more concrete understanding of health-related language.

Technological innovation — such as web-based apps and patient portals — can play an important role. Individuals can use mobile apps to track their heart health, create exercise routines and plans, establish meal plans, understand nutrition, and manage chronic conditions. Some apps can even help patients track their sugar levels and heart rates.

Individuals can also improve their health literacy by using online resources such as electronic health records, patient portals, and telemedicine options to access results from tests and treatment plans.

A Proactive Approach to Patient Care

Health literacy has a significant impact on the lives of countless patients, affecting whether or not they understand and have access to the medical care they need. On the other hand, the lack of health illiteracy not only negatively impacts individuals, but whole communities and the economy.

Students and professionals who are interested in improving health literacy would do well to consider an advanced degree in public health. Ohio University’s online Master of Public Health program is an excellent choice. With courses such as Rural Health Disparities, Biostatistics in Public Health, and Public Health Concepts, it is designed to prepare the health care leaders of tomorrow to address issues of literacy and equity in our most vulnerable communities.

Learn more today about how Ohio University can start you on the path to a new career.

Recommended Readings

Health Care Administration vs. Health Care Management: What’s the Difference?

How Public Policy Supports Homeless Youth in America

The Major Problems in the U.S. Healthcare System and How They May Be Fixed


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Health Literacy Measurement Tools (Revised)

BMC Public Health, Determinants of Health Literacy in the General Population: Results of the Catalan Health Survey

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Measuring Skills & Experiences

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tobacco and Cancer

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Understanding Health Literacy

Dovepress, Effects of Estimated Community-Level Health Literacy on Treatment Initiation and

Preventive Care Among Older Adults with Newly Diagnosed Diabetes

Health Equity, “A Health Needs Assessment of the Filipino American Community in the Greater Las Vegas Area”

Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, Electronic Patient Portals: Patient and Provider Perceptions

Medical Advocacy and Outreach, Health Literacy: Improving Treatment Adherence Through Better Provider-Client Communication

National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Health Literacy

The Nurse Practitioner, “Low Health Literacy”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Health Educators and Community Health Workers