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Health Literacy

How Health Literacy Month Started

Oct 1, 2023

Health Literacy Month is a time for advocates everywhere to focus on the importance of communicating health information in ways that patients and the public can understand. Celebrated worldwide each October, Health Literacy Month has been going strong since I founded it in 1999.

Here’s the behind-the-scenes story about how Health Literacy Month got started.

I first learned of health literacy in 1995 from a research paper published in JAMA and co-authored by Dr. Mark V. Williams. This research found that many adults in the U. S. struggle to understand written health information. That was certainly evident on the psychiatric unit where I worked as an occupational therapist. I knew right away that health literacy mattered and I wanted to do something about it. 

Shortly after, I left my clinical practice to focus solely on health literacy. But it quickly became clear that not many people, including my clinical colleagues, knew what health literacy was nor appreciated why it mattered.

Around the same time, I learned about the reference book Chase’s Calendar of Events that has an extensive listing of national events. I had the notion to create Health Literacy Month but didn’t want to do so solely on my own. So I proposed this event on the Health Literacy Discussion list and received overwhelming support. Many people responded along the lines of “Great idea! What are YOU going to do?”

And so began Health Literacy Month. Working with a small advisory committee, there were important decisions to make:

  • When is Health Literacy Month? While it’s true that we miscommunicate all year long, I chose October as it tends to have better weather and fewer national holidays or religious events. It’s soon before U.S. elections and I figured that politicians would like to be aligned with communicating clearly about health. Also, October already had many other health-related events including Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Physical Therapy Month, and Medical Librarians Month. 
  • Who is Health Literacy Month for? My initial vision was to raise awareness about health literacy primarily with health professionals. From there, I envisioned ever-expanding circles that would later include community organizations, policy makers, and the lay public. Health Literacy Month has no geographic bounds and could happen worldwide.
  • What would happen in Health Literacy Month? Given that Health Literacy Month started with just a small committee and no funding, I decided that it should be a grassroots effort. Individuals and organizations everywhere can raise awareness and take action in whatever ways matter to their audience and community. There is no right or wrong way to participate in Health Literacy Month.

Health Literacy Month has become more popular than I ever dared to imagine. There have been hundreds (likely, thousands) of events taking place across the country and around the world. These include community events to raise awareness about why health literacy matters, educational programs that teach skills about ways to improve health communication, and celebrations that highlight how individuals, organizations, and communities are taking action.

The initial structure and decisions for Health Literacy Month remain as relevant today as when it first started. In fact, Health Literacy Month has become so popular that it was more than what I alone could manage. I very much appreciate that IHA is now taking the lead to raise awareness and encourage action. Together, we made Health Literacy Month happen, grow, and thrive.

Happy Health Literacy Month! ~Helen Osborne

Want to know how I started Health Literacy Month for just 15 cents? Email me and I’ll gladly tell you more.