The Role of Public Health Education in Improving Health Literacy

Eastern Washington University’s online Master of Public Health (MPH) program prepares graduates for a wide variety of professional roles, including that of the public health educator. Today, most public health roles involve an element of health education, whether providing people with factual, actionable data as a biostatistician or helping the public understand disease transmission as an epidemiologist. Improving health literacy is one essential benefit of these and other public health roles.

What Are the Types of Health Literacy?

Health literacy is a key social determinant of health and represents a primary focus of public health initiatives over the next decade. Healthy literacy has two components: personal and organizational. Both are foundational principles and goals of Healthy People 2030 — a campaign spearheaded by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion to establish measurable national objectives that advance the public’s health literacy and well-being.

Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals can find, understand and use available information and services to make informed healthcare decisions for themselves and others, such as their children.

Organizational health literacy assesses how equitably healthcare organizations make information and services accessible to individuals so they can make informed healthcare decisions for themselves and others.

Individuals with limited health literacy may struggle to interpret written or spoken health information, like directions given by providers, which makes it challenging to adhere to treatment plans. As a result, they often have worse health outcomes and difficulty navigating the healthcare system. Similarly, when an organization is not providing community members with the same level of access to information and services, then that group’s quality of care and outcomes diminish — and the impact may extend even to those in the area with high personal health literacy.

Although no national standard for assessing personal health literacy exists, a National Assessment of Adult Literacy survey estimated that only 12% of U.S. adults had proficient health literacy and more than one-third had basic or below basic health literacy. In addition to poorer outcomes, people without adequate health literacy may experience higher hospitalization rates, more frequent emergency room visits and serious medication errors. Generally, the groups most likely to struggle with health literacy include the uninsured, racial and ethnic minorities, people aged 65 and older and those living below the poverty level.

What Are Healthy People 2030’s Health Literacy Goals?

Healthy People 2030 defines three objectives to strengthen personal and organizational health literacy and improve care quality, outcomes and overall wellness of individuals and their communities. Each goal focuses on developing provider-patient communication and facilitating shared decision-making:

  1. Increase the number of adolescents, from 38.4% to 43.3%, who speak privately with a provider during a preventive care visit
  2. Increase the number of adults, from 25.6% to 32.2%, whose provider verifies their understanding by asking them to describe how they will follow instructions
  3. Decrease the number of adults, from 9% to 8%, who report poor communication with a healthcare provider

Who Is Responsible for Teaching Health Literacy?

All healthcare professionals are responsible for fostering health literacy, and each can take action to improve it. Their efforts, cumulatively, inform public health policy and education. While the primary source of health education has historically occurred during a healthcare encounter, public health campaigns increasingly extend into schools, workplaces, homes and community spaces. Access to social media has also enhanced the ability to customize messaging and reach more people.

Public health educators assist in identifying critical public health issues and developing targeted programs to meet the needs of individuals and at-risk populations. They can create campaigns using jargon-free language to emphasize the most important points and offer supplemental resources, like videos and handouts, for reference.

Improving health literacy through public health education is a core component of fostering an informed public, achieving health equity and combatting misinformation and stigma that can exacerbate health disparities.

Learn more about Eastern Washington University’s online Master of Public Health program.

Related Articles

Our Commitment to Content Publishing Accuracy

Articles that appear on this website are for information purposes only. The nature of the information in all of the articles is intended to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered.

The information contained within this site has been sourced and presented with reasonable care. If there are errors, please contact us by completing the form below.

Timeliness: Note that most articles published on this website remain on the website indefinitely. Only those articles that have been published within the most recent months may be considered timely. We do not remove articles regardless of the date of publication, as many, but not all, of our earlier articles may still have important relevance to some of our visitors. Use appropriate caution in acting on the information of any article.

Report inaccurate article content: