What is health literacy?

The term “personal health literacy” was coined in 1970 and now denotes the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand and use health-related information to make informed decisions or take action. People with low health literacy often have problems understanding doctor’s instructions and reading prescriptions properly, and this results in poorer treatment outcomes and often serious complications associated with misuse of medications. Thus, it is a concept that goes well beyond literacy to include linguistic diversity, cultural nuances and effective communication. In today’s highly diversified world, with people of different nationalities living in the same country and speaking different languages, effective health communication is significantly hampered. The concept of health literacy is therefore being increasingly explored, as it is believed that it can bring enormous benefits for the health of both individuals and the general public, as well as contribute to the effective and sustainable development of healthcare systems.

The “Healthy People 2030” initiative also distinguishes the term “organizational health literacy”, which is the degree to which health-related organizations ensure the ease of understanding and equal accessibility of the information and services they provide. Such a distinction underscores the vital role health data producers play in raising medical awareness among the public, and obliges them to adequately address the topic of health literacy, in line with the initiative’s goals.

WHO, on the other hand, recommends health literacy as an essential instrument for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The concept thus appears to be very broad, flexible and complex, and unfortunately there is still no consensus on what it exactly represents. Besides, there are more than 250 different definitions on the subject in the academic literature. This lack of clarity adversely affects the evaluation of results of health literacy initiatives and, by extension, the generation of scientific evidence supporting the validity of strategies to improve it.

Where do language and health literacy intersect?

Despite the many differences in definitions, it was agreed that the ability to process and use information to effectively navigate one’s own actions is a key component of health literacy. The essential skills set here includes reading, writing, listening, speaking, counting, and all that goes with it. A consumer with these capabilities knows where and when to look for the necessary information and who to turn to for additional clarification. Nowadays, when people are flooded with a huge amount of information every day, the ability to synthesize it is essential for making informed decisions.

In highly diversified societies, the process of raising health awareness is further hampered by linguistic diversity, which is a major obstacle to effective communication. With no or poor knowledge of the basic language used in a country’s healthcare system, it is not difficult to misunderstand a doctor’s instructions and, for example, overdose, which in the worst-case scenario can have tragic consequences.

When dealing with representatives of different countries or faiths, we must also keep in mind the importance of cultural competences in healthcare professionals or creators of publicly available health information. Without understanding the cultural aspect, we would not be able to comprehend how language affects health literacy. Beliefs and practices passed down from generation to generation shape an individual’s view of physicality, and the language in which health information is conveyed can either narrow or widen the gap that exists between the two. Thus, there are many nuances, the proper addressing of which will positively affect the quality of treatment and, consequently, the patient’s overall life.

What language strategies can we adopt to ensure an increase in health literacy?

First and foremost, by providing accurate and culturally sensitive translations and translators or interpreters (we covered this issue more extensively in our earlier article). To make health information more accessible, it’s worth creating plain language materials (such as Plain Language Summaries, which we have written more about here) and visual aids that will reach a wider audience more easily, regardless of language proficiency. Providing health education materials that are tailored to specific cultural groups and encouraging patients to ask questions, raise concerns and seek clarification are factors that would certainly increase patient engagement.

Health literacy is the foundation needed to improve the health of the individual and society as a whole, and language plays a key role in this process. By addressing linguistic diversity, cultural competences and language challenges through the implementation of strategies to ensure better communication, we can create a healthcare system that is more accessible, equitable and responsive to the needs of a diversified society. Language is not only a tool here – it is the key to breaking down barriers and ensuring that health information reaches everyone, regardless of their language background.




World Health Organization, Programme TUND Policy brief 4: health literacy. The 9th global conference on health promotion. Shanghai, China, 2017: 2-3.