Health literacy

What is health literacy?

The definition of health literacy is the ability to obtain, read, understand, and use healthcare information in order to make appropriate health decisions and follow instructions for treatment.


This health literacy definition is easier to use in todays digital world. Covid 19 has set health on the search criteria of many where disease prevention and health promotion are active topics for patients around the globe. Patients have defined a new paradigm and are now offering up their information in exchange for health information and guidance from experts.

Health promotion and health literacy enables people to develop the skills and confidence required to make informed decisions about their health and the health of their families and loved ones, to be active partners in their care, to effectively navigate health-care systems, and to advocate effectively to their care givers, political leaders and policy-makers.

Health literacy responsiveness, sometimes called organizational health literacy, is another important factor. This is the way in which services, organizations and systems make health information and resources available and accessible to people, according to their health literacy strengths and limitations.

By empowering people and creating favourable environments, stronger health literacy and health literacy responsiveness will drive forward equity in health outcomes by making health care accessible to all, regardless of individual abilities.

In the history of health and medicine, health literacy is a dramatically new idea and area of activity.

That newness of the concept of health literacy creates the motivation and the possibility for an effort to better understand the health literacy efforts ongoing around the world. That newness is also what makes such an effort challenging, if not impossible for organisations, to truly and systematically complete. The source of that challenge lies in multiple realities.

DrugsDisclosed received its information from the results created in the popular health app DrugStars. The app helps patients to understand their medicines, the treatment schedules around not and regularly asks them questions to help find patterns in their adherence. Health care providers can benefit from more literate patients that have learned about their medicine and have a heightened focus towards it. The carrot offered to these patients is the ability to donate free cash donations to patient organisations around the world, and it works.


How health literacy affects your organisation

What people know about health and healthcare and what they do with that knowledge has a major impact on their health and well-being. When patients are given health information in a way they can understand, they tend to make better health decisions, and that has to be good for your organisation.

Low health literacy, on the other hand, is a contributing factor to poor outcomes, including hospital readmissions for chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. And low health literacy can impact the safe use of medications and adherence, which is not what any organisation wants.

“A well-informed patient is best able to interpret his or her own symptoms and signs, which leads to earlier detection of issues and more effective therapy,” says William Williams, M.D., president and CEO, BriaCell Therapeutics. “This improves the quality of life and often the duration of life.”


Health literacy is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Institute of Medicine as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

patients need to be informed, and giving them a driver to keep their medicine in focus throughout their treatment is a must, it is proven to reduce drop out.

Experts say it is critically important for the pharmaceutical industry to be involved in disseminating information on diseases, and companies have a significant role to play in health promotion and in disease education and prevention.

Health literacy impacts the entire prescription process, from getting prescriptions filled, or refilled, to actually taking medications as prescribed. The entire life-sciences industry can play a unique role in improving health literacy by engaging both physicians and patients alike.

Impact of health literacy

Health literacy impacts health outcomes in a multitude of ways.

  1. High rates of health literacy in population groups benefit societies. Health literate individuals participate more actively in economic prosperity, have higher earnings and rates of employment, are more educated and informed, contribute more to community activities, and enjoy better health and well-being.
  2. Limited health literacy significantly affects health. Limited health literacy is associated with less participation in health-promotion and disease-detection activities, riskier health choices, more work accidents, diminished management of chronic diseases, poor adherence to medication, increased hospitalization and rehospitalization, increased morbidity, and premature death.
  3. Limited health literacy follows a social gradient and can reinforce existing inequalities. People with limited health literacy most often have lower levels of education, are older adults, are migrants, and depend on various forms of pubic transfer payments.
  4. Building personal health literacy skills and abilities is a lifelong process. No one is fully health literate – everyone at some point needs help in understanding or acting on important health information.
  5. Capacity and competence related to health literacy vary according to context, culture and setting.These depend on individual and system factors, including communication skills, knowledge of health topics, culture, and the specific characteristics of health care, public health and other relevant systems and settings where people obtain and use health information.
  6. Responsiveness of health systems facilitates achieving positive health outcomes.The sufficiency of an individual’s level of health literacy depends on the responsiveness of organizations in health and other sectors, and the demands placed on the individual as a result of the complexity of the systems they must navigate.


Only 12% of adults have proficient health literacy, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy and 14% of adults (30 million people) have below basic health literacy. These adults were more likely to report their health as poor (42%) and are more likely to lack health insurance (28%) than adults with proficient health literacy.

Low health literacy can lead to patient medication errors, safety issues, misunderstandings about their condition, and delays in getting the right diagnosis and care needed. It has also been linked to a greater risk of mortality and an overall lower health status. When people are having a tough time understanding their care or the treatment plan, they’re less likely to take their medication as directed; they’re less likely to follow their self-care regimens, and ultimately they’re more likely to be hospitalised and stay in the hospital even longer.

The extra costs encountered can be measured in both human and financial terms: premature mortality, avoidable morbidity, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in health and healthcare and enormous avoidable costs. The cost of low health literacy is estimated to be between $106 billion and $238 billion, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Another study done by the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s Center for Health Policy published in November 2017 found that the relationship between health literacy and health outcomes is very important. Researchers found low health literacy is a contributing factor for readmission for chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

These researchers estimate, based on cost analysis of previous research, sufficient health literacy could save $105 billion to $175 billion each year.

One strategy is to involve providers in health literacy via in-service training. Teaching culturally based lifestyle and self-management or motivational interviewing to improve patient self-efficacy are a few examples.

Engaging patients when they are in the information-seeking stage is another strategy that the life-sciences industry could implement. Smartphone applications like DrugStars that help patients record their interactions or help to keep patients on track with their medications are also benefit patients.

Industry experts say communication of health information needs to start with plain language, which is communication that can be understood the first time it is read or heard. Material in plain language divides complex concepts into understandable pieces, places the most important points first, removes and/or defines jargon, and uses active voice.

Audience characteristics such as demographics, cultural beliefs, and attitudes drive the creation of health literate communication. Evaluation and testing the messages with the audience steers its design so that patient understanding is assured. Visual depictions of mathematical concepts such as risk are used to help increase comprehension.

Ways to increase disease prevention

Improving health literacy is an important public health goal in many countries. Although many studies have suggested that low health literacy has adverse effects on an individual’s health outcomes, confounding factors are often not accounted.

A population-based sample of 8194 participants aged 15–69 years old in Ningbo were used from China’s 2017 National Health Literacy Surveillance Data. They used multivariate regression analysis to disentangle the relationship between health literacy and chronic disease prevention.

They found that the association between health literacy and the occurrence of the first chronic condition is attenuated after they adjusted the results for age and education. This might arise because having one or more chronic conditions is associated with better knowledge about chronic diseases, thus improve their health literacy. More importantly, health literacy is associated with a reduction in the likelihood of having a comorbid condition. However, this protective effect is only found among urban residents, suggesting health literacy might be a key factor explaining the rural-urban disparity in health outcomes.

Their findings highlighted the important role of health literacy in preventing comorbidities instead of preventing the first chronic condition. Moreover, family support could help improve health literacy and result in beneficial effects on health and disease prevention.

Disease prevention and health promotion go hand in hand, the department of health works with disease prevention and health promotion and addresses literacy issues to help those with low literacy. Even during the recent covid 19 pandemic the department of health and human services, and the office of disease information worked with health literate definition to help as many as possible understand the information around covid 19 and disease prevention as possible, some may argue that the u.s department of health and their office of disease prevention maybe had patients defined with an incorrect health literacy def, and that there information and services should search and understand limited literacy especially around disease areas and treatment use and patient health more.

Any national office of disease like the u.s department of health and their information and services must address health literacy. Literacy issues are not always the same as health literacy issues, some people are literate but still fail health literacy tests. Health literacy can be helped by asking patients simply if they understand the health information they receive. Health and literacy need to go up, and although it is not the duty of a pharmaceutical company, they can help. Help targeting health literacy as an issue, help targeting the audiences with literacy issues with better health promotion and health information materials.

How to increase consumer health literacy

As detailed by the World Health Organization, health literacy refers to an individual's ability to understand basic concepts as they pertain to issues of health and healthcare. For example, someone with a high level of health literacy will understand the connection between smoking and the risk of certain cancers. They may also be able to recognize basic symptoms of chronic diseases. Such information is empowering, as not only does it allow individuals to make healthier choices with regard to their lifestyles, but it also means that they will be faster to access care when it is needed. WHO noted, however, that health literacy refers to more than just the cognitive ability to understand health-related issues. It also relates to the notion of access to information. For example, those who are unable to access health-based information, either online, on paper or through visits with health care professionals, will likely experience lower health literacy levels. 

Tips for healthcare professionals

As stated, physicians, nurse practitioners and registered nurses can all help educate patients, improving health literacy levels as a corollary. Here are some effective tips:

1. Recommend mobile apps

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, a notable majority of Americans - some 77 percent, to be precise - now own a smartphone. This means that access to health information via apps is higher than ever before. As explained by the HealthWorksCollective, there are apps that can deal with a whole array of health-related issues, from preventative strategies such as exercise and good nutrition, to the management of chronic conditions. For example, as mentioned by the source, some smartphone apps even function as medical devices, collecting personal health data pertaining to things such as heart rate and sugar levels. Apps can also serve as sources of general health information. Healthcare professionals should encourage patients to download certain cost-effective apps that they believe would help improve the health literacy of the patient in question. 

DrugStars is a scientifically proven app that helps patients follow their treatment plans, while engaging with them to keep their medication in focus and learn more through a light gamification model. It is also now proven. that using the app for just 60 days can drastically improve how patients feel about their medication.

Another bonus in mobile apps is short texts and interactions to help the patient stay informed, nudging them to learn, rewarding them when the do it right and helping them be better without wagging a finger at them.

2. Use plain language

As detailed by the HHS, it is important for healthcare professionals to utilize plain language when discussing health issues with patients, particularly if it is evident that the patient in question has poor health literacy skills. So what does this mean in practice? It means keeping instructions and information straightforward and easy to digest. It also means refraining from using terminology that is only widely understood in the medical sphere. Health care professionals are also advised to emphasise instructions and explain rationale using easy-to-comprehend examples. 

Limited literacy is a problem when it comes to educating patients, even those that are verbally strong in a clinical trial situation for example can be weak when it comes to the written word.

It becomes easier to communicate with patients the more you know about them. It's not enough to think you know how patients feel about your products, today you need to use Real-World data and Real-World Experiences to give you the full picture of just what it is patients feel about your drugs.

3. Make use of graphics and pictures

Many people are able to learn more effectively with the help of images or informational graphics. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement suggested providing patients with literature, such as pamphlets, or links to online resources, that make heavier use of images as opposed to text.

4. Utilize technology to reach more patients

In addition to EHR platforms, other developments in technology, such as patient portals and telemedicine solutions, have helped patients enjoy higher levels of communication with healthcare providers. The HHS stressed that healthcare providers should make use of these type of tools to reach more patients. Platforms such as patient portals can be an effective way to deliver crucial health information, such as test results and treatment instructions. Telemedicine can also be used as a way to assess and even treat underserved patient populations, such as those in rural areas and those with limited mobility. With more technological tools at their disposal, healthcare professionals can connect more effectively with patient populations, improving health literacy levels in the process.

Allowing patients to mirror themselves against other patients can also play a role in helping them to see where they are strong and where they are weak. Nudging them to find solutions and improve. Many patients perform better when they don't feel there is a right and wrong like in a test, they perform better when they are scored over time for micro interactions instead of exam papers.

5. Build community connections

Healthcare providers are also encouraged to expand their efforts to improve health literacy beyond the walls of their own medical practices. As detailed by HHS, this entails partnering with local community groups that can help disseminate important health information, whether that's reminders to get seasonal flu shots, directives for getting more exercise and eating more nutritiously or campaigns to encourage screenings for certain kinds of cancers - colon, prostate, cervical and breast cancers are pertinent examples. Types of community organisations that healthcare providers should consider working with include local libraries, community colleges and religious organisations.

Patient organisations are for many the community they use when it comes to their illness and treatment. This is why DrugStars the data provider app behind DrugsDisclosed and DrugsDiscovered rewards patients that comply and learn about their meds with Stars, Stars that can be donated to patient organisations around the world, DrugStars convert these stars into free cash donations to help even more patients.