What Is Health Literacy?

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

In a 1940 pamphlet from our collection, “Give the Doctor a Break: The Low-Down on Group Practice and ‘Sickroom Charm’,” Floyd Burrows, M.D., advocates for the continued importance of the general practitioner, writing:

“There is an art in establishing prompt obedience to directions; in obtaining the wholehearted cooperation of a patient; in imparting and in getting adopted useful health information and instruction; in winning the confidence of frightened children; in understanding comprehensively the discouraging problems of the aged, while sympathetically ministering to them; in entering strange homes and quickly achieving a commanding confidence among those present in one’s ability to cope successfully with any emergency which has arisen.”

Dr. Burrows likely never heard the term “health literacy” during his lifetime. But in this excerpt, he lays down aspects of health literacy—clear explanations to patients to improve their compliance, imparting medical knowledge—as a significant part of a physician’s job.

October is Health Literacy Month. In 2000, the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) defined health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions,” issues of note in 1940 that remain prominent today.

In 2010, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion of the HSS released the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. Citing a George Washington University publication, it estimates the costs of health illiteracy at $106 to $236 billion dollars annually, representing an increase in hospital visits, a decrease in preventive care, and poor chronic disease management.

As the National Action Plan states, “The greatest opportunities for reducing health disparities are in empowering individuals and changing the health system to meet their needs.”

The New York Academy of Medicine Library plays a role in boosting health literacy, in part through the Junior Fellows program. Together, NYAM’s Library and Office of School Health Programs teach New York City middle and high school students to conduct secondary health research and develop independent projects on health topics. They learn how to find and evaluate health information and build a vocabulary necessary for understanding complex public health issues. The 2012-2013 class of Junior Fellows will start their research in early November. You can read about successes of last year’s Fellows here.

A 2011-2012 Junior Fellow shares her research.

For a more in-depth explanation of health literacy, visit this National Network of Libraries of Medicine webpage.

2 thoughts on “What Is Health Literacy?

  1. Pingback: What Is Health Literacy? | Books, Health and History | Health Tips - Health Articles - Weight Loss Tips - How to lose weight

  2. Pingback: Looking for Health Information Online? Don’t start with Google. | Books, Health and History

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