What Is Health Literacy? Examining a Crucial Component of Quality Care

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Health care worker explaining health literacy to elderly patient

Health care organizations are under increasing pressure to build efficient care systems that can contribute to lower health care costs and improved patient outcomes. Health literacy is vital to achieving these aims.

What is health literacy? The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) defines health literacy 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.” This means that people with strong health literacy are likely to make more informed decisions about their health care. However, people with poor health literacy may not make the right health choices—in fact, the Roundtable on Health Literacy cites a study that points to “poorer health status and a higher risk of mortality” due to low levels of health literacy.

Why should health administration professionals understand the concept of health literacy? Because they can leverage their knowledge and skills to promote health literacy and contribute to better health outcomes in the communities they serve. From a career perspective, an understanding of health literacy and its benefits can help a health administrator advance into leadership roles, especially in organizations that want to improve the efficiency of their health systems.

Master of Health Administration online program equips students with important leadership knowledge and skills in health care administration. Combining business, policy, and patient perspectives, the online MHA includes a comprehensive curriculum focused on critical thinking, strategic planning, financial and technical literacy, communication, and organization skills—key skills for leadership roles in health care administration.

Defining Health Literacy

Health administrators with knowledge of acquiring, analyzing, interpreting, and communicating fundamental health care data can improve the health literacy of communities and individuals, which can lead to improved health outcomes. In defining what is health literacy, it’s important to understand its impact, the factors that affect health literacy, and ways to address the challenges.

Health literacy helps people to effectively navigate the complex health system, including identifying service providers and completing medical forms. Through technology like electronic health records and health apps, people with strong health literacy can share critical information with their providers and be proactive in their health management.

Not everyone has strong health literacy. HHS points out that roughly “nine out of ten adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease.” A number of factors, including communication skills, health-related knowledge, and pressing demands in the public health system, contribute to low health literacy.

Through the implementation of health literacy programs, health administrators can help ensure that communities are informed of basic health data and services, helping them to make proper health decisions. The need for health literacy is particularly urgent among older adults, minority groups, low-income people, nonnative English speakers, and others, according to HHS.

Health administrators may face challenges in promoting health literacy. Some patients may display resistance to change. Others may simply not understand what their health care providers are telling them. In some cases, patients with low health literacy may become embarrassed during appointments with their providers, deflecting their lack of understanding through excuses such as saying they left their glasses at home or pretending that they understand when in fact, they don’t. There may also be miscommunication between providers and patients.

To minimize these challenges, the use of plain language in written and oral form makes it easier for patients to understand more clearly and to help providers ensure that their patients know what to do next. Another strategy is to carefully explain to patients in precise detail their next steps; why these steps are crucial for their health; and the potential results of noncompliance, for example, a potential deterioration in their health.

Health literacy offers benefits when effectively executed. Knowledgeable health administrators can create more efficient care methodologies to improve patient outcomes. Health care organizations can reap the rewards of well-planned health literacy programs. For example, Kaiser Permanente introduced an approach to health literacy that reduced total knee replacements by 26% and total hip replacements by 38%, translating into improved patient satisfaction and reduced complications.

What is health literacy, and what benefits does it offer in the context of rising health care costs? Expenditures in the U.S. health care system are projected to grow at an annual rate of 5.6% between 2016 and 2026, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. A strong business case can be made for expanding health literacy. Data from the Roundtable on Health Literacy indicates that “low health literacy is estimated to cost $105 billion to $238 billion each year in direct health care costs.” Savings could be achieved each year through improved health literacy, according to the report.

Regis College’s online Master of Health Administration program can help health administrators deepen their skills for promoting health literacy. Students learn about what happens at the highest levels of health care organizations, from ethics and governance to finance and policies. And with a focus on social justice, the coursework prepares students to serve as leaders, making lasting changes that increase access to high-quality health care for all people.

Becoming a Health-Literate Organization

Health administrators with leadership skills can serve as advocates of health literacy in their organizations and society as a whole. They can apply their analytic and communication competencies to improving health literacy among patients and communities. Health administrators can apply the strategies outlined in the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In doing so, they advocate for health literacy in their communities. Among the strategies, organizations are encouraged to develop and promote initiatives that do the following:

  • Provide accurate health and safety information that can be easily accessed
  • Influence positive change, such as improving health information, access, and communication
  • Support community efforts that focus on educating adults using a cultural and multilingual approach
  • Strengthen strategic partnerships, increase research efforts, and facilitate the sharing of best practices

What is health literacy for an organization? What makes an organization health literate? A health-literate organization is committed to ensuring that everyone receives health system benefits. The organization understands that communication empowers patients to be more proactive in their health, and as a result, helps to improve their health outcomes. Other traits of health-literate organizations include the following:

  • Health literacy is part of their mission and day-to-day operations.
  • Their workforce is knowledgeable about health literacy issues and eager to promote it.
  • Health information and services are easy to access, and patients receive guidance and education.
  • Health literacy is addressed in emergency preparedness and emergency response plans.
  • Health services and costs are clearly communicated and available.

A health-literate organization benefits from increased visibility among peer organizations, and even more important, it can earn the trust of patients. Their commitment to health literacy positions them as respected leaders, which enables them to influence health literacy in their communities. Most importantly, by understanding the benefits of health literacy, organizations and health administrators can play an important role in improving health systems and patient care.

Improve Health Outcomes and Drive Change

Health care is evolving, increasing demand for professionals who have the skills to grow along with it and make an impact. Regis’s online Master of Health Administration program enables professionals to gain comprehensive insight into areas like management, communications, health informatics, and health policy, all of which are crucial for developing effective health literacy programs and enhancing the quality of care.

Read more about the program to find out how you can develop the level of health literacy needed to be a leader in health administration.

Recommended Readings

Why Ambulatory Surgery Centers Are the Future of Ambulatory Care

The State of Adoption in America

What Health Administration Professionals Need to Know About the Future of Health Care


Becker’s Hospital Review, “The Communication Cure for Improving Health Literacy”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Attributes of a Health Literate Organization

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, What Is Health Literacy?

Health.gov, National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy

Health.gov, Quick Guide to Health Literacy

Modern Healthcare, “Industry Slow to Improve Patient Health Literacy

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Building the Case for Health Literacy: Proceedings of a Workshop”

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The Journey to Become a Health Literate Organization: A Snapshot of Health System Improvement”

National Institutes of Health, Health Literacy

National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Health Literacy

Regis College, Online Master of Health Administration