Type 1 & Type 2: National Plan to Improve Health Literacy

The United States Department of Health and Human Services released The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy aimed at making health information and services easier to understand and use. The plan calls for improving the jargon-filled language, dense writing, and complex explanations that often fill patient handouts, medical forms, health web sites, and recommendations to the public.

According to the report, efforts to improve the health literacy skills of both the public and health professionals are needed to achieve a health literate society-a critical need as health reform generates more demand for consumer and patient information that is easy-to-understand and culturally and linguistically appropriate.

According to research from the U.S. Department of Education, only 12 percent of English-speaking adults in the United States have proficient health literacy skills. The overwhelming majority of adults have difficulty understanding and using everyday health information that comes from many sources, including the media, web sites, nutrition and medicine labels, and health professionals.

“Health literacy is needed to make health reform a reality,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “Without health information that makes sense to them, people can’t access cost effective, safe, and high quality health services. But, HHS can’t do it alone,” she added. “We need payers and providers of health care services to communicate clearly and make the necessary changes to improve their communication with consumers, patients, and beneficiaries. Today’s plan is only the beginning of a long-term process with our many partners in all sectors that we hope will result in a society that encourages people to live longer, healthier lives.”

Health literacy refers to the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.

“Basic health literacy is fundamental to the success of each interaction between health care professionals and patients – every prescription, every treatment, every recovery,” said HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Howard K. Koh, M.D. M.P.H. “Everyone has a right to health information that helps them make informed decisions. When people receive accurate, easy-to-use information about a health issue, they are better able to take action to protect and promote their health and wellness.”

The action plan contains seven goals, each with specific strategies for different sectors of the health system, such as payers, the media, government agencies, and health care professionals, to improve health literacy. These goals emphasize the importance of creating health and safety information that is accurate, accessible, and actionable.

According to the plan, building health literacy skills begins early in life and must be reinforced through the educational process and life-long learning about health. Social service agencies, libraries, community-based organizations, non-profits, patient advocacy groups, and other organizations can help individuals and communities build their health literacy skills and find appropriate health information and services in the community. The plan also calls for more research on effective strategies to address health literacy as well as evaluations of interventions aimed at improving health literacy with wide dissemination of these results.

The action plan supports the health literacy objective for Healthy People 2010 and 2020. The HHS Health Literacy Workgroup led the preparation of the action plan, the result of a decade of work by numerous public and private sector organizations and individuals. The plan was based on the 2006 Surgeon General’s Workshop on Improving Health Literacy, a series of town hall meetings in 2007 and 2008, and feedback from stakeholder organizations in 2009.

For more information on The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, visit http://www.health.gov/communication/HLActionPlan.

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Department of Health and Human Services press release


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