Nearly 36% of adults in the U.S. have low health literacy, with disproportionate rates found among many individuals who most benefit from public health information. Plain language public health communications put people first, enabling individuals to receive, process, understand, and use information to make informed decisions.
Public health information helps people understand risks and opportunities so they can make informed health and life decisions. But health information can be complex and difficult to understand. For the 22% of the US population who do not speak English at home, the 49% of Americans whose literacy is below the 8th grade level, or the nearly 36% of adults in the U.S. who have low health literacy, health information can be particularly challenging to comprehend. Health literacy is defined as "the skills necessary for an individual to participate in the healthcare system and maintain good health. These skills include reading and writing, calculating numbers, communicating with healthcare professionals, and using health technology (e.g., an electronic diabetes monitor)."
Health literacy is important because people are making choices about their health every day—what food to eat, when to see a doctor, what medications to take when, and whether or not to engage in substance use. To stay healthy, an individual must be able to understand things like food labels and medicine labels, schedule and navigate appropriate medical care, recognize and communicate symptoms, understand insurance paperwork, and pay medical bills. These can be complicated tasks, and they are rarely taught in health care, educational, or social institutions.
What are the impacts of low health literacy?
- Individuals, families, and communities may struggle to access quality care or make the best health choices
- Health care systems may be limited in their ability to provide safe and effective services
- Patients, governments, employers, and insurers face higher costs
But the burden of low health literacy need not lie on the individual—public health organizations can take steps to reach more people with information they can use to be happy and healthy.
- Plain language. Plain language makes it easier for the public to read, understand, and use health communications. Plainlanguage.gov recommends several techniques: reader-centered organization, using "you" and other pronouns, using the active voice, not passive, concise language with everyday words, and easy-to-follow lists, headers, and tables.
- Use print, oral, and digital communication channels. Individuals are receptive to information in different places at different times. Public health campaigns with breadth across multiple channels reach more people.
- Improve health literacy skills and empower individuals. Communicating with your audience must include connecting with, educating, and empowering them with the tools they need to be successful.
- Use person-centered language when appropriate. Person-centered language shifts the focus off of a particular health condition and on to the reality of the person who is living with it. Person-centered language can also help avoid negative and stigmatizing labels. There are times when person-centered language is not favored—always look to the audience for guidance on preferred terminology.
Keep It Simple: Using Plain Language to Support Patient-Centered Care
Plain language communication as a priority competency for medical professionals in a globalized world
Health Literacy Fact Sheets
What's the latest U.S. literacy rate?
What is Health Literacy?