A pharmacist explaining how to use a medication to an elderly Black woman

Health Literacy

Health literacy involves the information that people need to be able to make good decisions about their health. Health literacy can help us prevent health problems and protect our health, and better manage health problems and health-related situations that may happen.There are two definitions of health literacy:

Personal health literacy is how well a person can find and understand the health information and services they need. It is also about using that information and those services to make good health decisions.

Organizational health literacy is about how well and equitably organizations help people find the health information and services that they need. It includes helping them understand and use that information to make good health decisions.

Health literacy is important for everyone because taking care of our health is part of everyday life, not just when we visit a doctor, clinic, or hospital. It can affect your ability to:

  • Make good decisions about your health.
  • Get the medical care you need. This includes preventative care which can help prevent disease.
  • Take your medicines correctly.
  • Manage a disease, especially a chronic disease.
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, low health literacy is more prevalent among older adults, minority populations, people with low socioeconomic status, and medically under-served people (or people who live in communities or facilities without many medical, dental, and/or mental health providers). People with low health literacy may have difficulty with:

  • Locating providers and services
  • Filling out complex health forms
  • Sharing their medical history with providers
  • Finding preventative care resources
  • Knowing the connection between behaviors and health
  • Understanding the directions on medicine

How well you and your health care provider communicate with each other is an important part of getting good health care and improving your health literacy. The doctors, nurses, dietitians, and other health care providers you come in contact with are there to help you and you can make the most of your in-person or telehealth appointments by:

  • Before the appointment, write down:
    • your health concerns, any allergies you have, and all of the medicines, herbs, or vitamins you take
    • a description of the symptoms you are having – when they started, what makes them better, what makes them worse, and any treatment you’ve already had for them
  • Ask a friend or family member you trust to be with you during the appointment
  • Take notes during your appointment
  • Learn how to access your medical records so you can keep track of your lab results, diagnoses, treatment plans, and medications
  • Ask for your health care provider’s contact information and find out the best way to communicate with them (phone, email, etc.)
  • If you don’t understand your diagnosis and any treatments, ask questions until you do understand. Your healthcare provider can also give you written instructions if you ask for them.
  • Here are more tips you can use before, during, and after your healthcare appointments


U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Healthy People 2030: Health Literacy in Healthy People

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

Information compiled by Adriene Worthington MEd, RDN, LDN