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October is Health Literacy Month, an opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of clear communication and promote understandable health information.

Learn more about Health Literacy Month

Health literacy—the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions—is essential to promote healthy people and communities. As healthcare providers, we play a critical role in health literacy, because we have the ability to make it easier or more difficult for people to find and use health information and services.

Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences Roundtable on Health Literacy held a meeting specifically focused on health literacy among older adults, a population which often needs to interact with the medical community at a higher rate than younger people. A 2003 study by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion found that only 3 percent of adults aged 65 and older were proficient in health literacy skills. Review the Health Literacy Roundtable’s presentations.

The Roundtable found that this could be attributed in part to medical conditions, like cognitive and physical impairment, as well as social and psychological barriers like embarrassment and anxiety. Cognitive decline can even cause people with high health literacy before the age of 65 to see a decline in their health literacy as they age. Further, interventions involving technology can be useful for some people, but can also be intimidating for some older adults who don’t often use technology. As in all age groups, educational attainment also plays a role. Finally, many older adults often have non-professional caregivers who have low health literacy themselves.

Given that low health literacy is widespread, especially among older adults, we want to ensure we are communicating clearly with their patients. There are many resources that can assist; for example, AHRQ’s Universal Precautions Toolkit for health literacy. The toolkit offers practical strategies for minimizing the risk of miscommunication by:

  • Simplifying communication
  • Confirming comprehension for all patients
  • Making the office environment and health care system easier to navigate; and
  • Supporting patients’ efforts to improve their health

The theme for Health Literacy Month is “Be a Health Literacy Hero.” It’s about taking action and finding ways to improve health communication. Health Literacy Heroes are individuals, teams or organizations who not only identify health literacy problems, but also act to solve them. You can help by recognizing and cheering on those you consider as  Health Literacy Heroes. Click here for more information plus tools to help.

Additional Health Literacy Resources

Federal Plain Language Guide
Health Literacy Activities by State
CDC Health Literacy Resources
Department of Health and Human Services’ National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy
Guide for Simplifying User Experience and Improving Health Literacy Online