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Why is Health Literacy Important for Patient Health Outcomes

May 15, 2023

Image of doctor talking patience
SUMMARY: This piece will detail the importance of health literacy and health communication. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed just how much an impact online methods have in finding information. It revealed the extent to which misinformation has spread compared to science-based facts. Most importantly, the pandemic revealed a growing segment’s deep mistrust of health professionals. In a world like this, digital health technology may be capable of acting as a tool to bridge the divide.

Our ability to understand information builds the basis of how we function with our surroundings. In every interaction, our brains gather information and then simplify it to create an understanding of the world. This is called fundamental literacy. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) describes fundamental literacy as the skills and techniques used in understanding communication in four different modes: reading, writing, speaking, and numeracy


Health literacy is similar, except it encompasses the ability to comprehend health information. The CDC defines health literacy as “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.” This leads us to consider the value of health literacy in patient outcomes.

Animated image of a female doctor talking to a patient and showing information in a spreadsheet


In a 2011 review study, a team of researchers estimated that nearly 80 million Americans have poor health literacy. They found low health literacy is commonly associated with:

  • Greater hospitalization rates
  • Greater use of emergency care
  • Lesser ability to take medications properly
  • Lesser ability to comprehend health warnings and labels

Animated image of two doctors and a patient analyzing information on technological devices


Patients with low health literacy may have difficulties understanding health information. For example, someone can have high fundamental literacy and low health literacy. These two concepts are not interchangeable and can exist separately. Furthermore, our ability to process information can depend on the complexity of the information, our own life experiences, and how we feel in the moment.


At the same time, health professionals may face difficulties in effectively communicating vital health information. Thus, crucial health information can be misinterpreted or not entirely understood by the patient. To reduce these compounding issues, health professionals should use a universal precautions approach to health literacy. Essentially, all patients can be at risk of low health literacy.

Animated image of two doctors and a patient analyzing information on technological devices


When looking to improve health outcomes, professionals must ensure targeted measures to improve the health literacy levels amongst patients. Healthcare professionals must communicate with their patients in a way that is easily understood, using various patient education materials to achieve better engagement and comprehension levels. Some techniques to improve health literacy among patients involve audiovisual content, illustrated texts, and person-based interventions.

In a 2018 review study, researchers revealed that spoken animation and illustrated text techniques significantly improved recall amongst people with low health literacy. Even more telling, another study reported that patients who received digital patient education materials showed less anxiety and greater confidence in decision making. They also state patients displayed improvement in behavioural and clinical outcomes. More studies are revealing the benefits of innovative technologies for health literacy and consequently improvement of health outcomes.


Overall, improving health literacy has great potential to benefit health outcomes. Digital patient education materials may enhance health literacy and provide more opportunities to communicate health information with patients of various levels of health literacy. In essence, having high health literacy allows us to make better decisions that will lead us to live healthier and more quality lives.

Illustrative image of a doctor inside a computer, symbolizing health in a digital medium


  1. United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (2022). Literacy.Retrieved from Here.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). What Is Health Literacy?Retrieved from Read
  3. Berkman ND, Sheridan SL, Donahue KE, Halpern DJ, Crotty K. Low health literacy and health outcomes: an updated systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2011 Jul 19;155(2):97-107. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-155-2-201107190-00005. PMID: 21768583.
  4. Visscher, B.B., Steunenberg, B., Heijmans, M. et al. Evidence on the effectiveness of health literacy interventions in the EU: a systematic review. BMC Public Health 18, 1414 (2018). Read
  5. Schnitman, G., Wang, T., Kundu, S., Turkdogan, S., Gotlieb, R., How, J., & Gotlieb, W. (2022). The role of digital patient education in maternal health: A systematic review. Patient Education and Counseling, 105(3), 586-593. Read

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