HHS Leaders Highlight the Importance of Health Literacy

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is fortunate to have an active health literacy workgroup that represents over a dozen agencies. Its mission is to advance health literacy across our department. HHS currently defines health literacy as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions. In celebration of Health Literacy Month, the workgroup collected insights from leaders across HHS to highlight how addressing health literacy is central to achieving departmental and agency goals, and how HHS has contributed to health literacy improvement. As October comes to a close, follow @HHSPrevention on Twitter for more examples of Health Literacy in action.

On the Importance of Health Literacy


“Health for all Americans starts with health literacy. Half of U.S. adults have limited literacy skills and up to 9 in 10 are not proficient in health literacy. All sectors of health — from public health to health care delivery to health policy — need to commit to meeting people where they are with health information that is easy to understand.”

ADM Brett P. Giroir, MD, Assistant Secretary for Health

On the Impact of Health Literacy


“Health literacy can literally mean the difference between life and death. Everyone who works in health research, from lab bench to patient bedside, must ensure information provided to the public is clear and evidence-based, so they can make sound and safe decisions about their health.”

Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, Director, National Institutes of Health (NIH)

On the Role of Health Care Systems


“To deliver high-quality, safe, and high-value care, health care systems must provide information that people can easily find, understand, and use. Health literacy tools can help systems deliver person-centered care.”

Gopal Khanna, MBA, Director, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)

On Health Messaging 


“Health literacy and plain language are vital in FDA’s messages, to help patients and consumers make better informed decisions about FDA-regulated products they use. FDA uses health literacy principles along with evidence-based science to help patients and consumers make informed health decisions about FDA-regulated products.”

Amy Abernethy, MD, PhD, Principal Deputy Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

On Empowering People through Health Literacy 


“Health literacy is paramount to empowering people and their families to engage as partners in their health care — and to achieving better health outcomes envisioned for our evolving health care system.”

Shari Ling, MD, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)


“An important outcome of health literacy is an informed decision. As the world’s largest biomedical library, the National Library of Medicine helps increase people’s health literacy skills by providing physical and digital access to trusted, quality health information.”

Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD, Director of the National Library of Medicine (NLM)

On Health Equity

Cara V. James

“Health literacy varies across social and cultural factors and should be addressed at the individual, organizational, and system level. When health information is provided in an easy-to-understand way that informs health-related decisions, it leads to better and more equitable care.”

Cara V. James, Director, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) Office of Minority Health (OMH)

On Communication


“Health literacy is fundamental to helping people make informed healthcare decisions. It’s the core of our communications with beneficiaries and consumers of our programs — and essential to helping them achieve their best health outcomes.”

Tom Corry, Director of Communications, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)

On Health Literacy and Public Health 


“Health literacy is an essential component of public health. HRSA’s vision of ‘Healthy Communities, Healthy People’ only comes about as Americans engage with and make informed decisions about their health.”

Tom Engels, Acting Administrator, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)

On Making Science Clear and Actionable


“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the leading science-based, data-driven service center in the world. It’s important that our science is made clear, concise, and actionable for people to use and to make informed health decisions. CDC is dedicated to being a leader in health literacy and plain language principles when communicating with the public.”

Robert Redfield, MD, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

For more information on HHS’s health literacy initiatives and tools, visit these HHS health literacy web pages:

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