Primary author: Joy Agbonhese


Health literacy is having the knowledge on health issues, access to health care services, ways to manage and control health problems. In a broader sense, health literacy help lead us towards finding answers to the questions we have concerning health care. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (2009), health literacy is defined as the degree to which an individual is able to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make decisions on health and services that are necessary to preventing, managing, controlling or treating illness. Also, health literacy could also be defined as the planned learning experiences derived from reliable theories that give an individual, communities, and groups the opening to knowledge and valuable skills required to craft worthy health decisions (Edelman & Mandle, 2006 pg 217-230).

Health literacy can be developed from three key settings: school/institutional environment, communities, and patient care settings (Glanz, Rimer & Viswanath, 2008 pg 9-10). In schools and institutions, individuals are thought the importance and some key concepts on how to stay healthy, live a healthy lifestyle and how to prevent the spread of diseases. For instance, in schools, children are thought nutritional and sex education. This is very important because early childhood education helps facilitate health behavior at an early age. Community education programs in most cases organized by local groups, health departments both state and local, churches etc all contribute to the knowledge an individual gains when reached through those information outlets. Also, health education provided by providers in patient care settings also help individuals gain knowledge on health issues and broaden their knowledge on these issues aiding in gaining skills to better make healthy decisions. In addition, health education can be received in homes, worksites, the consumer market place and communication environment-media, internet and other forms of web outlets (Glanz et al, 2008 pg13-14).

Level of health literacy varies among groups based on age, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, level of education and geographic location. According to HRSA (2009), older adults, people living in under-served areas, minority populations, people of lower socioeconomic status and lower education level are more prevalent to low health literacy. Individuals with low health literacy have more difficulty with the following: locating health care services and providers, understanding the health care system, communicating with their providers to better understand their health problems, seeking preventive care, and managing chronic conditions (HRSA, 2009). This in turn could lead to lower quality of health, higher prevalence to diseases and higher mortality rates.

Level of health literacy among individuals varies due to different reasons both personal and environmental. On a personal level some barriers such as, individual motivation, language proficiency, and other stressors the individual see to be a priority over their health might affect the level of health literacy of an individual. Even though an individual have access to needed health information and choose to not obtain, and implement it or obtain and not implement the information it is worth as much as not having the information at all. Also, an individual’s language proficiency in the language in which they are been delivered the health information affect their understanding of the information. For instance, among Hispanic immigrants, language barriers make it difficult for this population to get involved and navigate the health care system because of their limited ability to understand and speak English language (Cristancho & Garces , 2008). Environmental barriers that affect level of health literacy are the availability of information for the public to utilize, quality of available information and effectiveness of outlets used in delivering that information. Public health professionals have the most responsibility in providing the public with needed health information. In recent years, the media have played a significant role in providing health information to the public but the issue of validity and reliability remain a question. In addition, “low or limited health literacy might best be described as a weakness in connecting-or a complete failure to connect-the audience with appropriate health information materials, services, or resources” (National Library of Medicine, 2004).

Even though health is influenced by so many other factors such as socioeconomic factors, political factors, physical and social factors, having the knowledge to make quality health decisions on individual lifestyle and health behavioral practices is affected by level of health literacy ((Edelman et al, 2006 pg 217-230). Aiming to improve health status will be achieved by helping individuals obtain knowledge and gain valuable skills to make informed health decisions. It is important to note that merely having health information does not improve health literacy status but the ability to process, implement, and practice that information affects the level and effectiveness of health information. For health information to be beneficial it needs to be valid, reliable, well understood, processed, implemented and reinforced.

Cristancho, S., & Garces, M. (2008). Listening to Rural Hispanic Immigrants in
the Midwest: A Community-Based Participatory Assessment of Major Barriers to Health Care Access and Use. Qualitative Health Research. 18 ( 5). 633-645

Edelman, C., and Mandle, C. (2006). Health Promotion Throughout the Life Span (6th ed.). St
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Glanz, K., Rimer, B.K., & Viswanath, K. (2008). Health Behavior and Health Education:
Theory, Research, and Practice (4th ed.). San Francisco: Josseys-Bass.

Health Resources and Services Administration (2009). Health Literacy. Accessed from on October 25, 2010.

National Library of Medicine. (2004) Understanding Health Literacy and its Barriers. Accessed
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