History of Health Literacy Definitions

In developing Healthy People 2030, the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives for 2030 proposed expanding Healthy People’s view on health literacy.

Earlier iterations of Healthy People defined health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” But the Secretary’s Advisory Committee proposed a new definition: “Health literacy occurs when a society provides accurate health information and services that people can easily find, understand, and use to inform their decisions and actions.”

In a health literacy issue brief, the Secretary’s Advisory Committee noted, “As health literacy research and practice have accumulated, we now more fully understand that responsibility for health literacy extends beyond individuals to include the organizations and professionals who create and deliver health information and services.”

The Healthy People Health Communication and Health Information Technology Workgroup then formed a Definitions Committee to consider whether Healthy People should adopt a new definition of health literacy. After conferring with other workgroups, the Definitions Committee requested public comment on both the old definition and the new definition from the Secretary’s Advisory Committee. Most public commenters advocated focusing on both the personal and organizational aspects of health literacy.

Read the public comments on the health literacy definitions.

The new definitions

After carefully considering all input and suggestions, the Definitions Committee drafted 2 new definitions:

  • 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.

Both the Health Communication and Health Information Technology Workgroup and the HHS Health Literacy Workgroup endorsed the new definitions. The definitions were sent to the Assistant Secretary for Health and approved by HHS.