What is health literacy? Why do I need to understand what it means? How does this benefit me? What can I do to improve my health literacy? All of these are questions that could come to mind when you hear the term health literacy. For anyone to benefit, we must have the answer for all.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 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. Being health literate allows you the peace of mind that you will be able to take full advantage of your benefits when it comes to your rights and what you are entitled to under the law.

Health literacy affects people's ability to: move through 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; and understand concepts such as probability and risk. It is dependent on many factors that include: communication skills of lay persons and professionals, lay and professional knowledge of health topics and terms, culture, demands of the healthcare and public health systems, and demands of the situation/context.

According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, less than 20 percent of adults have the health literacy proficiency needed to manage their health and prevent disease. This low health literacy has been linked to poor health outcomes such as higher rates of hospitalization and less frequent use of preventive services. And both of these are associated with higher healthcare costs.

Health information can overwhelm even people with advanced literacy skills. Improving health literacy lies with public health professionals, healthcare and public health systems. This responsibility includes the use of plain language which makes written and oral information easier to understand. When plain language is used, people can find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately on that understanding. The information presented should be organized in the following manner: most important point are presented first, complex information should be broken down into understand amounts, use of simple language and defining technical terms, and include active voice, meaning the subject performs the action of the verb.

For more information on this topic or nutrition information, contact Robin B. Landry, Area Nutrition Agent with the Assumption Parish LSU AgCenter at (985) 369-6386 or rlandry@agcenter.lsu.edu.