Reframing Health Literacy for the Next Decade of Healthy People

Each October, the public health community observes Health Literacy Month. This year, there’s a new reason to celebrate: Healthy People 2030 has redefined the concept of health literacy for the new decade. Key stakeholders in the health literacy field are taking notice and using this new definition to support their work.

Recognizing the Role of Organizations

Health literacy has always been a key concept in the Healthy People initiative. Previous iterations of Healthy People focused the definition on an individual’s ability to understand and use health information. Now, the initiative is highlighting the role that organizations play in improving health literacy with a new 2-part definition:

  • Personal health literacy is 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.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

This new definition is the product of months of discussion and revision. Following a recommendation by the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives for 2030 to update the definition, a panel of experts issued a call for public comments to gauge interest and gain perspective. Those comments helped the experts expand the concept of health literacy to include a more balanced public health perspective and better reflect the current science. Learn more about the development of the new health literacy definitions.

Reflecting the Realities of Health Literacy

Key stakeholders in health literacy say the new definition reflects the reality of their work. Christen Sandoval, Public Health Specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Co-Chair of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Health Literacy Workgroup, says this change highlights the interdependence of organizations and the people they serve. “It’s a continuous interaction between organizations and individuals,” she says. “One can’t be successful without the other.”

Cynthia Baur, Director of the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and former Co-Chair of the HHS Health Literacy Workgroup, says the definition shift “codifies the direction health literacy practice has been moving for many years.” She points to recent peer-reviewed studies and professional tools related to organizational health literacy as a sign of this trend. “We needed a refreshed definition that recognized this work and our commitment to focusing on organizational policies and practices,” she says.

Bringing Equity to the Health Literacy Conversation

Cindy Brach, Senior Healthcare Researcher at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and Co-Chair of the HHS Health Literacy Workgroup, notes the significance of including equity in the new organizational definition. “We are now officially recognizing that to be health literate, organizations have to address health equity,” she says. “You must not only enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services — but you must do so equitably.”

Sandoval agrees. “It’s important to call out organizational health literacy to recognize that systems play a key role in the reduction of health disparities and the promotion of health equity,” she says. This integration of equity into the organizational health literacy definition also aligns with one of Healthy People 2030’s overarching goalsto “eliminate health disparities, achieve health equity, and attain health literacy to improve the health and well-being of all.”

Paving the Way for Action on Health Literacy

Brach also points to the significance of the phrase “the degree to which” in the organizational definition. “This conveys that organizational health literacy is something that can be measured,” she says.

By recognizing that producers of health information and systems have the ability to improve health literacy and measure their success, Healthy People 2030 is paving the way for action and change. Organizations across the country can use the new definition to ensure that health literacy is a key part of their organizational strategy — and that their work aligns with the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy.

Baur says including health literacy in strategic planning is key. “You can discover many interesting places without a map,” she says, “but you’ll rarely arrive at the place you intend without using some guideposts and directions. It's the same for health literacy as a strategy: health literacy must be in an organization’s strategic plans if it has any serious intention of naming, let alone addressing, the health literacy barriers in our current system.”

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