Health Literacy

Health Literacy Month: It’s Time to Get Involved

Article from the Boston Globe’s On Call Magazine, September 2000

By Helen Osborne, M.Ed., OTR/L
President of Health Literacy Consulting

Health Literacy Month is listed in Chase’s Calendar of Events 2000. It is a grass-roots campaign to promote understandable health communication around the world. The month will be observed for the first time in October 2000. Advocates of health literacy are encouraged to raise awareness about health literacy in their own organizations and communities.

In April 1999, I proposed the idea of Health Literacy Month. It received immediate support, and in the year and a half that has followed, health professionals, literacy practitioners, academicians, and adult learners from the US, Canada, and Australia have worked together to make Health Literacy Month a reality.

What Health Literacy Is

Health literacy is defined by the National Library of Medicine as “the degree to which people can obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services they need to make appropriate health decisions.” But this definition is only a starting point.

Health literacy is about the entire process of exchanging healthcare information. It is not just about reading and writing. It is also about how people communicate about health through speaking or drawing pictures. And it is about using such technology as videotapes, audiotapes, or Web sites.

Why Health Literacy Is Important

The National Academy on an Aging Society reports that “over 90 million adults with low health literacy skills have limited ability to read and understand the instructions contained on prescriptions or medicine bottles, appointment slips, informed consent documents, insurance forms, and health educational materials. . . .The estimated additional health care expenditures due to low health literacy skills are about $73 billion in 1998 health care dollars.”

How You Can Make a Difference

Regardless of whether you have a lot of time to prepare a presentation or can devote just a few hours to your own learning, here are some ways you can participate in Health Literacy Month this October:

Talk with your patients. Let your patients and their families know about health literacy. Invite them to suggest ways you can improve communication. Also, take their suggestions seriously. For example, listen and respond when they ask you to use everyday words and not medical jargon. Pay attention when they ask for materials in a larger size print that is easier to see. Follow their advice. They are the true experts on what is understandable.

Learn about health literacy. Two good places to start are the Health Literacy bibliography compiled by the National Library of Medicine and the Health and Literacy Compendium developed by World Education in collaboration with the National Institute for Literacy. Both resources include annotated bibliographies of print and Web-based health literacy information.

Acquire the strategies to make information understandable. Learn how to simplify your materials. Books, such as Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills, have specific how-to information about writing, using visuals, and teaching with technology. Web sites, like the Plain Language Initiative, have sections on how to use plain language when you communicate. TeleClasses, such as the one I lead on “Ways You Can Make Medical Information Understandable,” introduce ways you can speak, write, and use pictures to make difficult information easier to understand.

Meet other health literacy advocates. Join NIFL-Health, an online discussion group sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy. Once you do, you can use the Internet to converse with more than 500 health providers, literacy specialists, academicians, and adult learners who share your commitment to health literacy. NIFL-Health will enable you to get your questions answered, share your experiences and frustrations, meet the leaders in the field, and hear about the latest health literacy resources and conferences.

Take a “literacy snapshot.” Use a standardized readability assessment tool, such as the Fry formula, to estimate the reading difficulty of your written documents. Notice which, if any, of your materials get thrown into the trash because they are too difficult to read. Create a literacy snapshot of these formal and informal findings. Then advocate for an organization-wide commitment to healthcare information your patients can understand and act on.

Raise awareness within your organization. Let your colleagues know about health literacy:

  • Add health literacy to your department meeting agenda
  • Write a press release about health literacy for your in-house newsletter
  • Show the new health literacy video produced by the American Medical Association to your staff, administrators, and physicians
  • Follow-up with a discussion about what your organization can do to address these important issues

Make a difference in your community. Help your family and friends understand their healthcare information. Encourage them to let their caregivers know when information is too difficult. Collaborate with your patients, community members, educators, and literacy programs to make sure your health information is understandable by its audience. And consider becoming a literacy volunteer. This is a great way to learn about literacy while you are also giving to others.

Shape the future of Health Literacy Month. Volunteer for a Health Literacy Month committee. Help shape how this event will be celebrated in future years. Let others know what you are doing to raise awareness, and share your successes and frustrations with fellow advocates. Join us this October as we celebrate Health Literacy Month. Working together, we can make a difference.

Resources You Can Use

  • For more information about Health Literacy Month, or to learn how you can get involved, contact Helen Osborne at:
  • Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills (Doak C, Doak L, and Root J (1996). J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia.) is considered by many to be the authoritative reference about health literacy. It includes information about how to assess materials for readability. Available at

Article reprinted with permission from On Call magazine and published by a division of Boston Globe Media.