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date: 24 May 2017

Health Literacy and Health/Risk Communication

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Health literacy—defined as the ability of an individual to obtain, process, understand, and communicate about health information—contributes significantly to poorer health outcomes and increased costs to the U.S. healthcare system. Approximately one-third of U.S. adults struggle with health information, including understanding patient education materials, reading medication labels, and communicating with healthcare providers. Low health literacy is more common among the elderly, those who speak English as a second language, and those of lower socioeconomic status. In addition to conceptualizing health literacy as an individual-level skill, it can also be considered an organizational or community-level ability.

Increased attention to the field of health literacy has resulted in debates about the definition of health literacy and the best ways to assess an individual’s health literacy. As healthcare providers have recognized the importance of health literacy, workshops and training programs have been developed and evaluated to improve the care of low health-literate patients. Similarly, health promotion professionals have developed best practices for reaching low health-literate audiences with traditional and new digital media. Researchers and practitioners together are advancing understanding of health literacy, its relationship to health outcomes and healthcare costs, and improved strategies for improving the health of lower health-literate patients.