5 facts about healthcare literacy I bet you didn’t know

Think about the last time that you read something (whoa, how cool is that, you’re reading something right now!), and think about how valuable that skill is. Without it you wouldn’t be able to keep up with the news, do your job or even send a text message. Now consider that most people aren’t what we call “health literate”.

–> Health literacy is really all about being able to properly communicate with your doctor, understand what your doctor is telling you, and make an informed decision (or even follow directions) – don’t trust me, trust the CDC.

Now, before you discount this gibberish and “somebody else’s problem”, check out these stats…



  • Who’s HIGHLY Health Literate?


Let’s start with the crème de la crème of the population, those with very high health literacy rates. How many of us are there? About 12% of the population. That’s ok, right? Not really. This is the group of people  that is deemed capable enough to calculate their insurance premiums for the year and be able to maintain a good standard of health. Only 12% of people can do this. Scary, huh?



  • Who has a “below basic” level of literacy?


14% of the population. Yep, more people are unable to “read a short list of instructions” than are able to feasibly communicate with and find a doctor (the highly literate). This is a seriously low level of capabilities and results in a very poor overall condition of health. With levels of literacy this low, it creates issues for those with chronic conditions being largely unable to manage over a long period of time.



  • How about the rest of us?


Most of us (over 50% in fact) fall into the category of intermediate. This means that we know what medications to take and how often to take them. Pretty minimal stuff, really.  But can we manage the more complex stuff? Can we be reasonably expected to make an informed decision for bigger things like surgeries or procedures? Probably not.



  • Why should I care?


Limited health literacy has been described as an “epidemic” by more than a few researchers. It means that most people will have some difficulty in getting care, and that the care provided may not be very impactful. And to top it off, this “epidemic” impacts a wide cross section of the population, not just the undereducated. In reality, any company is going to have a significant amount of their employees that fall well below “proficient” in their literacy and this translates into big dollars and poor health. For those of you that manage employer health plans, impacting health literacy means better benefits for your employees for less money. That’s something that everybody can get behind.



  • Is there anything that we can do?


Short answer – yes. Long answer – you’ve got to help people get relevant information when they need it. No, your 60 page SPD (that huge document that “explains” your benefits) doesn’t count, you really have to meet people halfway and give them information where they are (on their phones). Technology has come a long way and can help people with things like tracking medications and doing doctors visits over the phone. People want to take their health seriously, we just need to give them the tools to do it.



Source: health.gov

Health Literacy Level Task Examples Percentage
Proficient Using a table, calculate an employee’s share of health insurance costs for a year. 12%
Intermediate Read instructions on a prescription label, and determine what time a person can take the medication. 53%
Basic Read a pamphlet, and give two reasons a person with no symptoms should be tested for a disease. 21%
Below Basic Read a set of short instructions, and identify what is permissible to drink before a medical test. 14%