Health Literacy 101

October is Health Literacy Month, which serves as an important reminder that every individual’s well-being should be in their hands. While that may not be the case today, we advocate for giving patients their power back, which starts with education and support. Read on for a little health literacy 101, plus key questions to ask yourself (or your organization) about your health, care and well-being.

What is Health Literacy?

If you don’t know what health literacy is, don’t worry, the U.S. government just updated its definitions:

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) approved these new definitions for its Healthy People 2030 initiative. The initiative, now in its fifth iteration, “sets data-driven national objectives to improve health and well-being over the next decade.” The following six developmental core objectives are related to health literacy:

These six Healthy People 2030 health literacy objectives directly align with HSS’s National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy.

Our sherpas have and continue to navigate almost every aspect of healthcare; however, health literacy has them frustrated and searching for tools that don’t yet exist. Believe it or not, there is no easily accessible self-assessment for health literacy for individuals or organizations. It is hard to get serious about our country’s health literacy when the government cannot provide a basic evaluation to establish where you are versus where you want to be at any scale.

Government healthcare agencies, departments, and institutions use a top-down approach to increase national health literacy. Funding and education on how to improve individual, group, and organizational health literacy is funneled to healthcare providers and public health professionals, and virtually no resources have been made directly available to the average American, let alone the American patient. If our sherpas have trouble locating resources, then our federal and state governments are failing individual Americans, specifically those interested in taking charge of their health and healthcare, which was the goal in the first place.

Thanks for not getting discouraged, overwhelmed, or bored, as health literacy is one of the many areas of healthcare that everyone struggles with since there is little established data and thus few actionable, evidence-based interventions. But, we all need to start somewhere, so here is what we suggest.


Ask yourself the following five questions:

1. How often do you have someone (family member, friend, or healthcare professional) help you read clinic/hospital materials?*

2. How often do you have problems learning about your medical condition because of difficulty understanding the written information provided by your doctor, nurse, or other healthcare professional?*

3. How confident are you in filling out medical forms by yourself?*

4. How comfortable are you asking your doctor, nurse, or other healthcare professional to repeat themselves, talk slower, or explain your medical condition another way?

5. If you are not comfortable asking your doctor, nurse, or other healthcare professional to communicate with you differently, do you think you would feel the same way with a different provider?

*Questions adapted from a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

You are not alone if some or all of these questions make you uncomfortable. We, sherpas, healthcare professionals, and the government have failed to provide you with the tools you need to feel at ease, let alone fluent, with your personal health information and conditions. Your potential lack of understanding is not only disheartening and anxiety-provoking, but has been shown to prevent you from receiving the best, or even correct, treatment for your condition, illness, or injury. You can always ask Cancer Sherpa anything, and we are happy to help for free. Sherpas are here to empower you to eventually navigate the healthcare system yourself, and we do that by sharing our knowledge with you.

Individuals at Organizations

Ask yourself the following three questions:

1. Does your organization, institution, or company provide the resources to help you understand your access to the healthcare plans and care they provide?

2. Is there a dedicated person you can approach to ask questions about your healthcare plan and the care it provides?

3. How can you help yourself and others to make your healthcare plan and the care provided more easily understood across your organization, institution, or company?

Change is currently coming from above, as we mentioned, but that does not mean it cannot start from below. Telling your organization what you need from it is critical to getting the healthcare you already pay for and deserve. We have sherpas that love reading healthcare plans (yep, they really do exist), and are happy to help you navigate yours. Click here to contact us today.