Clear Communication Empowers Patients

Health literacy is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions” (Healthy People 2010).

At the Minnesota Health Literacy Partnership, we define health literacy as:

A patient’s ability to obtain, understand and act on health information.


The capacity of health care providers and health care systems to communicate clearly, educate about health and empower patients.

This means that a health-literate individual is one who can access and use health information effectively, and that a health-literate provider is one who can deliver health information to patients effectively.

The bottom line: Communication is a two-way street requiring an empowered patient and an empowering provider.

Low Health Literacy Impacts all Aspects of Care
The affects of low health literacy can be devastating. In fact, studies show that low health literacy affects a person’s health status more than any other factor, including education, income, employment and race.

People with low health literacy:

  • Don't seek preventative care
  • Are less likely to follow prescribed treatments
  • Stay in the hospital longer than those with higher health literacy
  • Are often ashamed to ask for help making health care decisions

Here are just some of the reasons why:

  • An issue of access. Health care services and institutions are complex and confusing. You can call a nurse line, visit your doctor, make a trip to the ER. You can even email your doctor or clinic, schedule an e-visit or stop by your local pharmacy. Where do you go to find the care that you need? And how do you get there? And once you’re there—whether online or in person—how do you find the information you need?
  • An issue of safety. Patients with low health literacy may not accurately report their condition or their medication, which can be dangerous. Informed consents, often written less for the patient and more for legal protection, are complex. The Minnesota Alliance for Patient Safety has created a more understandable informed consent form to help increase patient safety. The organization has also developed a process to ensure patients truly do understand what they are consenting to.
  • An issue of quality. Patient satisfaction is an important measure, and patients who have trouble understanding their doctor’s instructions often report lower satisfaction. Health professionals also need to pay attention to cultural and linguistic needs of patients in order to ensure they receive quality care.
  • An issue affecting outcomes. Low health literacy impacts understanding of medication labels and treatment regimens. Treatment adherence problems can arise when patients don’t understand the importance of maintaining a treatment course or showing up for follow-up appointments.

The Cost of Low Health Literacy
Nearly half of all U.S. adults—90 million people—can’t understand and use the information shared by their doctor, clinic or hospital.

What’s more, people with low health literacy are less likely to seek preventive care and follow doctors’ orders.

As a result, mistakes are made, their conditions worsen, they incur longer hospital stays (and greater costs) and sometimes, they even die.

Consider these statistics:

  • Low health literacy Increases U.S. health care costs by $50 to $73 billion each year.
  • Inpatient spending for someone with low health literacy was $993 higher than for patients with adequate reading skills.
  • Those with low health literacy incur average health care costs of $13,000 compared to $3,000 for those with higher literacy levels.

Seniors Need Extra Help
Did you know there are more than 36 million adults, age 65 and older living, in the U.S.?

Seniors struggle with understanding and acting on health information more than younger adults.

It’s critical that we help older adults effectively navigate and utilize the health care system and the information they need to stay healthy. Our Health Literacy Program for Minnesota Seniors (HeLP MN Seniors) does just that.

See the Quick Links to find details about our program and workshops that you can offer in your community. Workshops include:

  • Communicating with your health care provider
  • Finding reliable and accurate health information on the Internet

Learn More about Health Literacy
These websites provide helpful information about health literacy: