Health Literacy

It’s Time to Get Involved in Health Literacy Month

Article from the Boston Globe’s On Call Magazine, October 2003

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

Healthy People 2010 defines “health literacy” as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” There are many reasons why people have difficulty with these tasks. These include limited literacy or language skills, age, disability, culture, and emotion. Regardless of why people struggle to understand basic health information, when they do, they may be unable to fully participate in their own treatment and care.

Four years ago, in order to raise awareness about the issue of health literacy and  its overall importance, several of us decided to create and promote Health Literacy Month (HLM). Observed each October, it is a time for health-literacy advocates around the world to focus attention on the fact that much of the health information people need is difficult or even impossible to understand. While efforts to address issues of health literacy go on continuously, a designated month focuses the attention of the public and professionals alike on the need for remedies.

Health Literacy Month is a success, serving as a common focus that hospitals, health centers, public health initiatives, literacy programs, libraries, colleges and universities, professional associations, government agencies, consumer groups, and  myriad other organizations use to draw local attention and develop local resources to address this important issue. The observance is listed in numerous, databases and publications such as [ital]Chases’ Calendar of Events[end ital] and the CDC’s [ital]National Health Observances Calendar[end ital].  Health Literacy Month has also been acknowledged and applauded by Health on the Net (HON), a nongovernmental organization affiliated with the United Nations.

There is no right or wrong way to participate in Health Literacy Month. Individuals and organizations get involved in ways that match their skills, interests, resources, and identified community needs. Some people, for example, talk about health literacy in department meetings and put up Health Literacy Month posters. Others sponsor health-literacy workshops or display health-literacy information in their local libraries and shopping malls. And some even work with their state governments to officially proclaim October as Health Literacy Month. Large or small, community-based or nationwide, these events share the goals of raising awareness and building capacity to address health literacy.

Julie Hodorowski, RN, MA, for example, participates in Health Literacy Month by keeping her online colleagues up to date about health-literacy resources. As information service manager at the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI’s) Cancer Information Service of New York (1-800-4-CANCER;, Hodorowski’s job is to talk with the public about cancer prevention, early detection, treatment, and clinical trials. She noticed that people often had difficulty understanding this type of cancer information and wanted to know if health literacy was a factor. To learn more, Hodorowski participated in a Health Literacy TeleClass that I led and she was inspired to get more involved. As her way of participating in Health Literacy Month, Hodorowski made a commitment to educate colleagues about health literacy. Since October 2002, Hodorowski has been regularly posting health-literacy resources and links on all the professional listservs (online discussion groups) she belongs to.

HLM is an event everyone can participate in. Here are some ways you can get involved this month.

Consider how health literacy affects understanding. Perhaps you are a health provider who writes, edits, uses, or pays for printed health information. Or maybe you are a community educator who talks about health over the phone or at local health fairs. Or perhaps, as a patient or family member, you are on the receiving end of health information and must understand a new diagnosis, medication, or self-care instruction.

Whatever your role, consider how health literacy (or the lack thereof) has an impact on the understanding of these messages. For example, if you are a health provider, consider not only the subject matter you are communicating but also how you are conveying this information. Think, as well, about the learning needs and abilities of the people you are communicating with. If you feel that there is a mismatch, decide to explore alternative communication strategies like plain language, pictographs, stories, and analogies. And then make sure to confirm that those who you are communicating with truly understand your healthcare message.

Think “outside the box.” Health literacy is bigger than any one person, profession, or program. Think beyond the traditional healthcare arena and get to know others who share your interest in and commitment to health literacy. Hodorowski, for example, reached out to librarians. For her, the “light bulb went on” when she recognized that librarians not only offer consumer health information but also teach literacy programs. Now, in grant-proposal writing she looks for opportunities to learn from and partner with librarians in health-education projects.

Find a mentor or role model. Even though there is growing awareness about health literacy, you may at times feel like you are a voice of one where you work. To offset this, Hodorowski touts the value of finding a “health literacy mentor” to work with and fashion yourself after. For example, she says that she gets an extra dose of energy, motivation, and direction when she visits the Health Literacy Month Web site.

Participate in ways that make sense for you. HLM activities come in all shapes and sizes. Be realistic and plan events that match your interests, strengths, and resources. For many, this means building on a series of small successes. For example, this year you might want to host an introductory meeting between clinicians at your facility and literacy tutors in your community. Next year, maybe both groups can co-host a panel discussion about health literacy — from the perspective of providers and patients.

Make a commitment. It can be hard to make an extensive commitment to even a good cause like health literacy. I know, from my days as an occupational therapist, that “health literacy” is not likely to appear in anyone’s job description. I also know that health providers are under tremendous pressure to accomplish a lot with too few resources. But I also know that, when patients and family members do not understand health information, we as health professionals haven’t adequately done our job.

This month, make a personal commitment to improve healthcare communication. Working together, we truly can make a difference.

Ways to Learn More

  • Helen Osborne is the founder and president of Health Literacy Month. You can contact her by e-mail at or by phone at (508) 653-1199.
  • Julie Hodorowski, RN, MA, is the information service manager at the NCI Cancer Information Service of New York. You can contact her by e-mail  or by phone at (212) 593-8245.

The mission of Health Literacy Month is to coordinate, support, encourage, and otherwise make it possible for organizations to conduct — alone or in partnership — local awareness and training events tailored to the specific needs of their communities. To learn more, visit the Health Literacy Month Web site at

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