Health Literacy – What is it, and why it matters?

Why should medical writers (MW) be aware of health literacy?

Health literacy is about being able to understand and interpret healthcare information. It’s also about our ability to navigate health and social care systems and make informed decisions about our care.

Why is it so important?

So many reasons!

One of the main ones is that low health literacy has been linked to poor health outcomes. It also affects disadvantaged and vulnerable groups disproportionately and can reinforce health inequalities.(1) As MWs, being aware of the problem is an essential tool to improve the readability of our texts and, thus, contribute to better health outcomes.

Words have an incredible power, both to hurt and to heal.

Health literacy is the best tool patients have to make informed choices.

Health Literacy involves the ability of individuals to comprehend and apply health-related information, including medication and treatment options. It requires critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills and is crucial for individuals to navigate and make informed decisions about their health. Low health literacy leads to poor health outcomes, healthcare cost increases, and significant disparities in health outcomes. Improving Health Literacy yields positive results such as better health outcomes, improved quality of life, reduced healthcare costs, and increased patient engagement.

Health Literacy matters because individuals need to be able to navigate and make informed decisions about their health. People with low health literacy are more likely to have poor health outcomes, incur higher healthcare costs, and experience more significant disparities in health outcomes. They may struggle to understand treatment instructions, correctly take medications, or fill out medical forms accurately, leading to increased hospitalizations and medical errors.(1)

Improving Health Literacy can help individuals take control of their health and make informed decisions, leading to better health outcomes, improved quality of life, and reduced healthcare costs. It also benefits healthcare providers by improving patient satisfaction, reducing healthcare utilization, and increasing patient engagement in their care.

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Literacy does not only apply to health.

Health literacy and readability go hand in hand.

Health literacy is a dynamic, multifaceted skill set that relies on patients, healthcare providers, and the healthcare system. In addition, health literacy assessment provides an avenue for evaluating patient understanding and offers insights into their health management capabilities. Inadequate health literacy results in compromised care, considerably hindering successful communication and comprehension of relevant health information between the patient and the provider.(1)

A recent systematic review concluded that eHealth literacy could be a mediator in the process by which health-related information leads to changes in health-related behaviours.(2)

Health literacy and readability are interrelated in that readability measures the ease with which a text can be read and understood. In contrast, health literacy is the ability of an individual to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make informed health decisions.

In other words, if health information is not presented in an accessible and understandable way (i.e. if the readability of the information is poor), it can negatively impact health literacy by making it more difficult for individuals to comprehend and act on the information.

Improving the readability of health information can help to improve health literacy by ensuring that the information is presented in a way that is easy to read and comprehend. This can be done through clear and concise language, large font sizes, and simple formatting, among other things, which can help make health information more accessible to individuals with low health literacy.


  1. Health Literacy information by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (CDC):
  2. Lans A, Schwab JH. Health Literacy in Orthopaedics. J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2023;31(8):382-388. doi:10.5435/JAAOS-D-22-01026

Resources to help you write easier-to-read texts

  • Guide to health literacy. Council of Europe:
  • Health literacy: "how to" guide by NHS:
  • Guide to Implementing the Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit, by AHRQ: