Article: Health Literacy Should Be Valued as a Social Driver of Poor Health Outcomes

Health literacy is the ability to understand and effectively use health information to make decisions about one’s health. People with low health literacy have increased mortality, worse health outcomes, are less engaged in their care, use the emergency room more often, and have higher avoidable healthcare expenditures.

In this article, Lisa Fitzpatrick, MD – a subject matter expert on healthcare in underserved populations – discusses the need to recognize health literacy as a social driver of health and invest in interventions to address it along with other social determinants of health.

Health systems and insurance companies spend millions on health information that is often ignored by patients. In 2019 alone, over $30 billion was spent on health communications for consumers. If the information if not understood or used, it has little impact on health. Dr. Fitzpatrick offers several actions to improve low health literacy:

  • Recognize and address the association between low health literacy and trust in healthcare. Low health literacy equals less engagement.
  • Understand low health literacy is not a one-size-fits-all designation. Challenges may include language, numeracy, health system navigation, or how to take medications.
  • Understand how low health literacy influences health outcomes and commit to addressing it.
  • Tailor health education and information content to ensure it is relevant for those who need it.

Health equity requires engaged, well-informed patients. As such, health literacy should be a measurable driver of health equity.

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