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Communication is fundamental to medicine and public health. Most health care professionals communicate health information daily, whether individually with patients or to other audiences. However, health information is complicated, and it often is not conveyed in a simple manner. Average adults struggle to understand and use health information, and this can have negative consequences for their health.

Health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”1

Health literacy affects patients’ ability to carry out fundamental tasks that they encounter every day, such as

  • reading appointment slips
  • understanding medication labels
  • learning about their health conditions


Health literacy is crucial in more complex tasks, such as

  • participating in discussions about informed consent
  • end of life planning
  • applying for and navigating health insurance plans


1U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Healthy People 2010. 2nd ed. With Understanding and Improving Health and Objectives for Improving Health. 2 vols. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office; November 2000.