What is health literacy?

“I sent a MyChart message to my provider to ask about a medication they recently prescribed me. During my visit, they informed me that since it was a new medication and it is expensive, insurance probably needed to approve it before I could pick it up from my pharmacy. I messaged my doctor and asked if the medicine they prescribed been approved yet. Their reply was ‘The PA went through.’ As a medical professional, I know that a PA, or Prior Authorization, ‘going through’ means that insurance has approved the medication and I can go pick it up from the pharmacy. A patient who has not experienced this before or heard it in their professional life as I have, might have wondered, ‘What is a PA?’ “’Where did it go through?’ and ‘What does this mean to me?’ A much more clear way to answer my question might have been, ‘Yes, your insurance has approved the medication and you can contact your pharmacy to see when you can pick it up.’ This would have avoided confusion and not allowed for room to interpret acronyms, medical jargon and culturally bound language.

From this experience, I decided that I was going to use PA or Prior Auth as my plain language pledge for Health Literacy Month – something we’re doing at Richmond Clinic all month long to energize all staff around plain language.”

–Lia Sebring, Social Determinants of Health Coordinator

Health what? Health Literacy 101

What is health literacy? The U.S. Affordable Care Act defines it as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process and understand health information and services in order to make appropriate health care decisions.”

It’s estimated that one-third of patients in the U.S. have low health literacy.

As movement toward patient-centered care becomes more important, the medical community continues to use medical jargon during encounters with patients and in written materials that can be unfamiliar or easily misunderstood.

Often, patients and healthcare providers perceive health literacy as  “dumbing down the medical jargon.” The stigma behind practicing healthcare literacy is one of the barriers preventing patients from making positive health decisions and seeing good outcomes.

Communicating in plain language is not simply exchanging complex words for simpler ones. Making the transition to plain language involves changing the way we speak, write and communicate – interacting in a way that is clear and understandable for all.

Providers and clinical staff know best that treating patients calls for extensive coordination – from prescribing medication to making specialty referrals. But have providers and patient care staff taken the time to talk with their patients about how much they understand? If not, how can providers gauge their patients’ level of health literacy?

If health literacy is a key component of patient-centered care, then how do we implement it?

Health literacy as a discipline includes a dense background of research and case studies. This body of work shows there are helpful methods to educate providers and healthcare workers on how to create a more health literate environment. Some examples are:

  • Use plain language:
    • Use simple language and define medical or uncommon terms.
    • Break down complex information into manageable chunks.
    • Speak or write in an active voice – make instructions easily actionable.
    • Organize information by importance.
  • Exercise universal precaution:
    • Maintain consistency in communication – treat all patients as if they are at risk of not understanding health information. Use plain language with everyone, including patient’s family members or others involved in their care.
  • Utilize teach back:
    • Make sure that the patient understands their provider’s action plan for their health care needs by having the patient repeat what how they interpret their provider’s recommendations.

Learn more

Interested in applying or implementing health literacy methods into patient care settings? Here are a few places to get started:


Lia Sebring, B.S.
Social Determinants of Health Coordinator
OHSU Family Medicine at Richmond

Olyvia Chac, B.S.
Administrative Assistant
OHSU Family Medicine at Richmond