Over recent years, researchers and professionals in the public health and medical communities have brought increasing attention to the significant impact that health literacy can have on the well-being of individuals with limited literacy skills. At the same time, they have highlighted that health literacy is not merely a function of the skills of individuals. Rather, health literacy is an interaction between individuals’ skills and the demands and expectations imposed on them by health materials, health professionals and the health system.
In the United States, several major health policy developments have sought to address the critical issue of health literacy by intervening to improve one or more of these components of health literacy. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Prevention of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services introduced an action lan to improve health literacy in 2010. The National Action Plan laid out seven goals for improving health literacy, including goals related to the development of health materials, the way health information is disseminated in the health care system, and the health literacy skills of the population. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), introduced that same year, also included several provisions related to health literacy. For example, it sought to improve health professionals’ skills by incorporating health literacy into professional training. It also included provisions requiring insurers, clinicians and other health professionals to communicate health information to patients or consumers in a clear, easily understood fashion.
The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy and the ACA are just two examples of initiatives in the United States that illustrate policymakers’ increasing awareness of the importance of health literacy. Health literacy is emerging as an area of interest in other countries as well. For example, in 2015 the New Zealand Ministry of Health released two publications, “Health Literacy Review: A Guide,” and “A Framework for Health Literacy” as part of its efforts to better address health literacy considerations within its health system. Additionally, policies and initiatives have been introduced in Australia, Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, and Israel that have sought to create more health literate health systems. More information about these efforts can be found by clicking on the link included below to access the IOM Health Literacy Workshop Summary on Health Literacy: Improving Health, Health Systems, and Health Policy around the World.
Examples of recent policy initiatives related to health literacy are highlighted in the resources below.
The Ministry of Health developed this document, which was informed by best practice examples from around the world, with the goal of supporting health organizations as they work to reduce the health literacy demands placed on consumers.
This framework was developed by the Ministry of Health to help actors within New Zealand’s health system integrate health literacy at all levels of the health system and reduce the health literacy demands imposed on individuals by the system.
Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 2013. Recognizing the unique attributes and strengths of efforts happening in different regions of the world to address health literacy,the IOM Roundtable on Health Literacy hosted a 2012 workshop about international health literacy. This report summarizes the presentations given during that workshop.
Department of Health and Human Services, 2010. This document contains seven goals that will improve health literacy and suggests strategies for achieving these goals. The goals are based on the principle that everyone has the right to accesible health information and understandable health services.
Public Law 111–274, 2010. The Plain Writing Act, passed in 2010, mandates that federal agencies use “clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.”
Center for Disease Control, 2009. To address concerns about health literacy, the CDC convened an Expert Panel on Improving Health Literacy for Older Adults in 2007. This meeting was designed to assess health litearcy issues among older adults and to identify opportunities for health professionals at CDC and other organizations to better meet the health communication needs of older adults. The report provides an overview of panel presentations and discussion.
Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations 2007. This report is part of the series “Healthcare at the Crossroads,” published by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. The Joint Commission convened an expert Roundtable panel that was comprised of a broad range of stakeholders who are accountable for addressing health literacy. This report represents the culmination of that Roundtable’s discussion and provides recommendations to improve health literacy, reduce communication-related errors and better support the interests of patients and providers of care alike.
Department of Health and Human Services, 2006. This report is a result of a workshop convened by Acting Surgeon General Kenneth Moritsugu on Sept. 7, 2006. Three panels were convened to discuss health literacy: Literacy and Heatlh Outcomes; Meeting the Health Litearcy Needs of Special Populations; and Moving Toward and Informed and Enaged Public. This report provides a summary of these panel presentations and the discussion that followed.
National Academies Press, 2004. The Institute of Medicine, National Academies of Science, impaneled a Committee on Health Literacy. The report defines health literacy and its scope, identifies obstacles to creating a health literate public, assesses the approaches that have been attempted to increase health literacy, and identifies goals for health literacy efforts as well as key players who may contribute to these goals.
Communicating Health: Priorities and Strategies for Progress, Action Plans to Achieve the Health Communication Objectives in Healthy People 2010, 2003.
The Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2003. In the National Call to Action to Promote Oral Health, the Surgeon General emphasized that “improving the health literacy of the public, including oral health literacy, is key.”