Considerations for Improving Health Literacy

A majority of individuals who have access to the internet are searching for health information online and more and more are joining social networks for support and information about health care options. As this catchy video from a year ago notes, we’ve experienced a revolution in attitudes about health care.

Empowered patients aren’t necessarily enabled patients

However, as educators know, there really is no such thing as a digital native and use of tools doesn’t imply understanding. The online health revolution is not quite over since the ability to access a tool like the internet doesn’t mean it’s used in the best way possible. Further, although more seniors are exploring online tools, this remains a population that is generally less confident about their internet skills and it’s  a population that’s often grappling with serious health conditions.

You can’t tell by looking at someone

It’s also worth remembering that  health literacy and overall literacy are not the same thing. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has pointed out that even highly skilled individuals will find it challenging to grasp complex health information when made vulnerable by poor health (Nielsen-Bohlman, Panzer, & Kindig, 2005).  Further, as noted by the American Medical Association (AMA), poor health literacy is “a stronger predictor of a person’s health than age, income, employment status, education level, and race” (AMA, 1999).

Designing health information tools that teach

If the goal of providing health information really is to empower patients (versus creating a new marketing demographic of “e-patients”), there are some issues that health information providers need to consider.

  • Health information, particularly information about genetics and cancer, is complex
  • Understanding will generally be compromised when an individual becomes a patient or caregiver facing a stressful or unfamiliar situation
  • Many of the words that are second nature to educators and subject matter experts (e.g., physicians, insurers) are jargon to most people
  • Improving health literacy is not about “dumbing down information” or being condescending to patients; it’s about considering specific patient needs and meeting these needs with clear language and useful tools
  • People generally prefer action-oriented information and tools that help them to make decisions tailored to their unique circumstances
  • Most people want to become more effective partners with their physicians but may feel that communications are not ideal; tools should support enhancing partnerships
  • Communication and learning issues will be influenced by many factors including age and cultural responses: there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to health education

The American Medical Association has created some excellent videos to raise awareness about issues of poor health literacy.

In a subsequent posting, I’ll discuss some design strategies for developing health education materials.

In the meantime, I’ve created a Diigo group “Health literacy and patient education resources” so we can share resources for improving health literacy and patient education.


American Medical Association. (1999). Report on the Council of Scientific Affairs, Ad Hoc Committee on Health Literacy for the Council on Scientific Affairs. Journal of the American Medical Association, 281(6), 552-7.

Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion. Nielsen-Bohlman L, Panzer AM, Kindig DA, eds. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Available at: Accessed June 19, 2010.

5 responses to “Considerations for Improving Health Literacy

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  4. Pingback: Health Literacy Month and e-Patients: A Ways to Go | Instructional Design Fusions

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