Curious about how, when, and why health literacy got started, I posted a query in the online Health Literacy Discussion List. Here is a brief recap of what I learned about our health literacy history:
- 1974. The first mention of the term “health literacy” was in a monograph by SK Simonds, “Health Education as Social Policy” published the next year in Proceedings of the Will Rogers Conference on Health Education. In this monograph, health literacy is framed within the context of social policy.
- 1978. Leonard and Cecile Doak (whom many consider as the founders of health literacy as we know it today) studied the reading skills of hospitalized patients. The Doaks, along with Jane Root, co-authored the landmark book Teaching Patients with Low Literacy Skills, first published in 1985. Listen to this Health Literacy Out Loud podcast interview with Len and Ceci Doak.
- Early 1990s. Inspired by the work of Dr. Harold Freeman (then President of the American Cancer Society), Wendy Mettger and others at the National Cancer Institute and the AMC Cancer Research Center created the National Work Group on Cancer and Literacy. This group brought together experts from diverse fields. Many of them research, practice, teach, and continue as health literacy leaders today.
- Mid 1990s. Others got involved in health literacy issues and initiatives. They not only included physicians and other clinicians but also literacy practitioners, teachers, researchers, health communicators, patient educators, medical librarians, disability professionals, and social justice and environmental activists. The lay public, including new readers (adults learning to read) also became active in health literacy. Listen to my podcast interview with Archie Willard about his experience as a struggling reader.
- Late1990s. Health literacy gained worldwide attention. Leaders included Irving Rootman and Linda Shohet of Canada, Donald Nutbeam of Australia, and Ilona Kickbush of Germany. Health Literacy Month, a worldwide awareness-raising event, was started by Helen Osborne in 1999.
- Early 2000s. Interest in health literacy quickly grows, thanks in part to the 2004 publication of the Institute of Medicine’s report, Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion. The American Medical Association (AMA) Foundation also championed health literacy, creating an educational toolkit with the powerful video, “You Can’t Tell by Looking.” Around this time, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer got involved. One of their efforts was hosting an annual conference. As I recall, they were the ones to combine the terms “health” and “literacy” into the name as we know it today.
- Around 2010. Dr. Howard Ko (then Undersecretary of US Health and Human Services Department) said health literacy reached a “tipping point.” He cited milestones including the US Plain Language Writing Act, HHS’s National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, and the national ACA/Health Care Reform. Listen to my podcast interview with Dr. Koh.
- Today. There are thousands of health literacy research articles, hundreds of health literacy programs, numerous health literacy coalitions, and too-many-to-count health literacy initiatives across the US and around the world. Major recent milestones include the formation of the International Health Literacy Association, and a new scholarly journal, Health Literacy Research and Practice.
We can take pride in these accomplishments. Here’s to health literacy’s continued progress in the decades ahead! ~Helen Osborne