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A Guide to Understanding and Improving Health Literacy


Written by Blaise O’Malley, MPH

October is Health Literacy Month and IMD wants to celebrate by helping patients increase their own health literacy, enabling them to make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing. Read on to learn more about this important topic!

What is health literacy?

Many different definitions of health literacy have been proposed. For example, health literacy has been referred to as the “ability to access, understand, evaluate, and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain, and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course” (Rootman & Gordon-El-Bihbety, 2008). Another definition states it is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions” (Ratzan et al., 2000).

Despite the many definitions, they all generally refer to the same thing: an individual’s ability to understand health information well enough to make appropriate, informed decisions about their health.

Why is health literacy important?

Good health literacy has been linked to better health outcomes (UnitedHealth Group, 2020). It results in fewer hospitalizations, medication errors, and medical costs (Gutierrez & Cohn, 2019; UnitedHealth Group, 2020). Patients with strong health literacy skills may also feel more in control of their healthcare experience and may be better equipped to manage difficult healthcare decisions (ACP Decisions, 2019). 

I’m a patient – what can I do to improve my own health literacy?

There are a number of actions you can take to improve your health literacy. To start, explore IMD’s Health Literacy page found under our Health Equity section. This page includes helpful resources from trusted health organizations like the Institute for Safe Medication Practices Canada, the Asthma Society of Canada, and the Canadian Breast Cancer Network. There you can find resources that will teach you how to read your prescriptions, make sense of test results, engage in self-advocacy, and more.

When in a healthcare setting, ask questions if something seems unclear and don’t be afraid to repeat instructions back to your provider in your own words to make sure you understand them.

I’m a healthcare provider – what can I do to improve my patients’ health literacy?

Using plain language and avoiding medical jargon can greatly improve your patients’ understanding. It is important to keep instructions as unambiguous as possible. For example, say “swallow” instead of “take” and say “long-term” instead of “chronic.”  Once you have finished explaining a condition or procedure, ask your patient to explain it back to you in their own words to confirm their understanding.

You may also want to consider the use of visual aids (ACP Decisions, 2019; Institute for Healthcare Improvement, 2014). If you’re on the IMD platform, there are over 4000 images of anatomy, conditions, and procedures available to you to show to patients. You can also digitally draw on the images, allowing for a more interactive teaching experience. Images can help provide important context to patients and enable better understanding of the material.

While on IMD, explore our new Health Literacy page to see if there are any resources you feel your patients might find helpful. The page includes content that explains how to properly measure liquid medications, how to store and dispose of medications safely, and how to advocate for oneself as a patient.

How does health literacy relate to health equity, and what is IMD doing to promote both?

Improving health literacy is essential to achieving health equity because central to health equity is the elimination of health disparities, or differences in health related to economic, environmental, or social disadvantage (Braveman, 2014). To eliminate these disparities, all patients need to have access to resources that will help them understand their health, give them the knowledge they need to self-advocate, and enable them to make informed healthcare decisions.

Given that IMD is a patient education platform, health literacy has always been important to us. By providing accessible, straightforward resources, IMD helps educate patients in a way that makes sense to them. The inclusion of audiovisual content in addition to written content ensures that patients will have a way to access health information in whatever their preferred format is.

IMD is working towards greater health equity, although we realize we are only at the beginning of this journey – there is still much work to be done. To start, we have created different topic pages focused on social determinants of health and the health of historically marginalized groups. We are also planning on educating our employees about equity, diversity, and inclusion. As we continue to build on this goal, we will share our insights and use them to make IMD as accessible and equitable as it can be. 



ACP Decisions. (2019, September 30). Four Simple Strategies for Improving Patient Health Literacy. Retrieved from https://acpdecisions.org/four-simple-strategies-for-improving-your-patients-health-literacy/

Braveman, P. (2014). What are Health Disparities and Health Equity? We Need to Be Clear. Public Health Reports, 129(Suppl 2), 5-8. doi:10.1177/00333549141291s203

Gutierrez, K. M., & Cohn, L. D. (2019). Medication Competence, Numeracy, and Health Literacy. HLRP: Health Literacy Research and Practice, 3(3). doi:10.3928/24748307-20190625-01

Institute for Healthcare Improvement. (2014, October 15). 8 Ways to Improve Health Literacy. Retrieved from http://www.ihi.org/communities/blogs/8-ways-to-improve-health-literacy

Ratzan S.C., Parker R.M., Selden C.R., & Zorn M. (2000). National library of medicine current bibliographies in medicine: Health literacy. NLM Pub. No. CBM 2000-1. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Rootman, I., & Gordon-El-Bihbety, D. (2008). A Vision for a Health Literate Canada: Report of the Expert Panel on Health Literacy (Rep.). Ottawa, ON: Canadian Public Health Association.

UnitedHealth Group. (2020, October 26). Health Literacy Key to Better Health Outcomes. Retrieved October 12, 2021, from https://www.unitedhealthgroup.com/newsroom/research-reports/posts/health-literacy-research-462863.html