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Health Literacy: Hints for a Healthier You

women student searching onlineYou may not have considered it, but every time you read health information, from food labels to medical forms, you're exercising your health literacy skills.

Health literacy is the ability to obtain, process, and understand health information needed to make informed health decisions. Health literacy affects your ability to:

  • Use the healthcare system, including filling out complex forms and locating healthcare providers and services
  • Share personal information, such as your health history, with providers
  • Care for yourself and manage any chronic disease
  • Interpret nutrition labels and understand what you're putting in your body
  • Understand how to correctly use over-the-counter and prescription medicines to get the most benefit and avoid risks
  • Understand math concepts such as probability and risk

In addition to basic literacy skills, health literacy requires knowledge of health topics and math. For example, you use math skills to calculate cholesterol and blood sugar levels, measure medications, and understand nutrition labels.

If you have limited health literacy, you may lack knowledge or have misinformation about the body as well as the nature and causes of disease. Without this knowledge, you may not understand the relationship between lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise and various health outcomes.

Why is health literacy important?

According to the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit organization that offers advice on science matters, approximately half of the adult population may lack the needed literacy skills to use the U.S. healthcare system. Low literacy has been linked to poor health outcomes such as higher rates of hospitalization, less frequent use of preventive services, and higher healthcare costs.

What do research studies say about the relationship between health literacy and health outcomes?

Use of preventive services

People with limited health literacy skills are more likely to skip important preventive measures such as Pap tests and flu shots. When compared to those with adequate health literacy skills, studies have shown that patients with limited health literacy skills enter the healthcare system when they are sicker.

Knowledge about medical conditions and treatment

People with limited health literacy skills are more likely to have chronic conditions and are less able to manage them effectively. Studies have found that patients with high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, or HIV/AIDS who have limited health literacy skills have less knowledge of their illness and its management.

Rates of hospitalization

Limited health literacy skills can lead to an increase in preventable hospital visits and admissions. Studies have shown a higher rate of hospitalization and use of emergency services among patients with limited literacy skills.

Health status

Studies show that people with limited health literacy skills are significantly more likely than people with adequate health literacy skills to report their health as poor.

Health care costs

Those with limited health literacy skills use more services designed to treat complications of disease and less services designed to prevent complications. Higher rates of hospitalization and use of emergency services can mean higher healthcare costs.

Stigma and shame

Low health literacy may also have negative psychological effects. One study found that those with limited health literacy skills reported a sense of shame. As a result, they may hide reading or vocabulary difficulties to maintain their dignity.

How can I become more health literate?


While you're in school, many of the classes you're taking will help raise your health literacy. Reading, English, science, math, and health classes are all important for raising health literacy skills.

Do your research

If you do have a health problem, be an informed consumer by researching your condition. A good place to start your research is a government website developed for consumers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website can also help you find health information about topics such as drugs, medical devices, and food.

Ask your provider

Your health care provider can answer questions you have about your health. Advice from your health care provider can keep you safe while improving your health literacy. Not sure what to ask?

Additional resources

Schedule an appointment with Hall Health Center

If you are a current UW-Seattle student or an established Hall Health Center patient with questions, you can contact our Consulting Nurse service.


Authored by: Hall Health Center Health Promotion staff

Reviewed by: Hall Health Center Primary Care Clinic staff (KC), February 2014