What Is Health Literacy? - Definition & Assessment

Instructor: Donna Ricketts

Donna Ricketts is a health educator with 15 years of professional experience designing health and wellness programs for adults and children.

In this lesson you will learn about health literacy and its health implications. You will also learn why health literacy it is important and how to improve it. You will be introduced to the various tools available for measuring health literacy.


Have you ever gone to the doctor and tried to fill out medical forms, but found some of the terminology or questions to be confusing? Do you know someone who has experienced difficulty reading nutrition labels or determining proper dosage and timing of medications? These are all outcomes related to health literacy.

Health literacy can be defined as the ability to understand and have access to basic health information and services to make informed health decisions. It is how well you comprehend the various images, signage, and written health information you encounter in your day-to-day life. Unfortunately, a lot of health material provided is not understandable by most people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 out of 10 adults experience difficulties obtaining and utilizing health information and services available to them.

Prescription Bottles
Prescription Bottles

Importance Of Health Literacy

Being health literate is essential when it comes to making the best decisions regarding your health. Not having access to or understanding the vast amount of health information presents obstacles when trying to access the healthcare system or when trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Limited health literacy can affect people of any race, ethnicity, age, income, education level, or geographic location.

Limited health literacy is associated with:

  • Reduced use of preventive services such as routine doctor visits, mammograms, Pap smears, and flu shots
  • Increased risk of medical error, hospitalization, and use of emergency services
  • Reduced ability to seek out treatment and management of chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pleasure, or asthma
  • Inability to interpret food nutrition labels, complete insurance forms, or understand directions on prescriptions and other medicines
  • Inability to locate health care providers and services
  • Higher healthcare costs


Before work can be done to improve health literacy, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what areas need improvement. A health literacy assessment can be used to collect such information. In general, a health literacy assessment is a comprehensive overview of all aspects of your health and well-being, but it mainly measures your ability to read and understand written health information.

The Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine (REALM) and the Test of Functional Health Literacy in Adults (TOFHLA), are two of the most frequently used tools to measure health literacy. They primarily measure word recognition, reading proficiency, and numerical comprehension.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) is a large-scale national assessment used in the United States to measure your ability to use literacy skills to read and understand written health-related information you encounter in everyday life.

How To Improve Health Literacy

For health literacy to improve, information, products, and services must be made accessible and understandable to everyone. As identified by National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, health information must be accurate, accessible, and actionable.

The following list provides ways that health literacy can be improved:

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