What is health literacy? Blog post from Stratus Video
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What is Health Literacy?

By David Fetterolf, Stratus Video President

Stratus Video is in the business of healthcare communication. Every day, our qualified medical interpreters help limited English proficiency patients to communicate effectively with their healthcare providers. Occasionally, Stratus Video interpreters encounter multiple barriers between patients and providers: language barriers, and health literacy barriers.

According to health.gov, “Health literacy 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.” (source). Basically, does the patient have enough working knowledge of health and healthcare to understand their diagnosis and treatment options?

Low health literacy is common among the limited English proficiency population, nearly three times as common as it is among English speaking patients (source). According to health.gov, there are a variety of factors that can contribute to low health literacy, and there are also numerous effects:


“Health literacy is dependent on individual and systematic factors:

  • Communication skills of lay persons and professionals.
  • Lay and professional knowledge of health topics.
  • Culture.
  • Demands of the health and public health systems.
  • Demands of the situation/context.


Health literacy affects people’s ability to:

  • Navigate the healthcare system, including filling out complex forms and locating providers and services.
  • Share personal information, such as health history, with providers.
  • Engage in self-care and chronic-disease management.
  • Understand mathematical concepts such as probability and risk.” (source)


With low healthcare literacy so common among the limited English proficiency population, it is important for both interpreting and healthcare professionals to be aware that their message may not be getting through. In fact, the US Department of Health & Human Services suggests using a health literacy universal precautions approach. That is, structuring the delivery of care as if everyone may have limited health literacy. Their reasoning being that literacy does not equal health literacy, anxiety and fear can contribute to confusion, and that you cannot tell from looking at someone whether or not they have a high or a low health literacy (source). Add to that the fact that everyone benefits from clear communication, and you have a compelling case for treating everyone sensitively and equally.

Health literacy can be difficult to determine, but crucial when it comes to providing effective patient care.



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