Health Literacy

By Kristen Jayska

Health literacy is defined as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.”  Unfortunately low health literacy is at the forefront of several health issues in our country.  Studies have concluded that low health literacy “adversely impacts cancer incidence, mortality, and quality of life” (Glassman, 2013) as well as being independently associated “with worse glycemic control” (Glassman, 2013) in Type 2 diabetes patients. There is also a strong correlation between low health literacy and improper use of metered-dose inhalers in asthmatics and an inadequate knowledge regarding important lifestyle changes and self-management skills for those suffering with hypertension.  In addition to the individual consequences, low health literacy packs a hard financial punch.  It is estimated that the economic impact is $106 billion – $238 billion, or 7-17% of annual health care expenditures.

Many people do not possess the necessary skills to locate health information or to evaluate health information for credibility.  Healthy People 2010 identified ways that librarians can help. Offering literacy programs for those with limited literacy skills, and incorporating health literacy programs into the library’s repertoire are just a few options.  Partnering with health care professionals and educators in raising awareness that libraries are a resource for health information, by creating health literacy collections (legal documents such as informed consent, after care instructions, insurance forms, etc.), and by teaching health literacy workshops at local hospitals will also prove useful.

Possibly the most important variable is that of information literacy (IL) or “a basic knowledge of information-searching strategies, coupled with an understanding of research resources” (Cobus, 2008) and the librarian’s role in “the academic preparation of public health professionals through explicit integration of IL instruction” (Cobus, 2008).  Librarians will teach these future doctors and nurses to “develop the sophistication needed to find and assess information in multiple formats” (Cobus, 2008), thus arming them with higher quality health information in plain language so that health care consumers are better able to comprehend the information given to them.


Cobus, L. (2008). Integrating information literacy into the education of public health
professionals: roles for librarians and the library. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 28-33. doi: 10.3163/1536-5050.96.1.28

Glassman, P. (2013, October 3). Health Literacy. Retrieved from National Network of Libraries of Medicine


4 thoughts on “Health Literacy

  1. I think that this is a great idea, and a terrific opportunity to partner with local clinics and physicians. Getting accurate information into the hands of patrons is a natural fit for the library and its mission.

    I think the challenge is making patrons aware of the availability of this information. Perhaps programs on biology for youth in conjunction with schools or other organizations would help transmit the information on a larger scale. Another idea might be to set up a free screening location at the library… to check blood and to address concerns. Makes the library as a destination for information!


  2. Very interesting post! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen patrons sitting at our computers looking things up on sites like WebMD, and I always wonder if they have the tools that they need to evaluate that information.
    It’s not just up to academic and medical libraries to provide this information to patrons. We in public libraries have an obligation as well to make sure that our patrons have access to important health information.
    At the start of the year, my library ran a few “Obamacare” programs to help our patrons navigate the health-care market place.
    I wish that more libraries would have more health programs.

    • Caryn,
      That’s the intent – to get public libraries on board and able to help patrons access reliable information, interpret what they find, and lead them on the correct path to healthy lifestyles, avoidance of high risk choices, and learning how to make the right choices if s/he is already suffering from an illness. Hopefully this enterprise will pick up speed!!

  3. Kurt,
    That’s exactly what librarians are striving for. To get the word out there that libraries ARE a source for health information. As with any new venture it’s slow at the start, but I think (hope) that once this starts taking off that it will greatly benefit everyone. Part of the problem – a large part, actually – is that people don’t know where to turn to get “plain language” information. So much of what we find in our searches is for the medical community. If it’s not, and it is geared towards the lay people, we don’t have a way to gauge if it’s reliable, or not. That’s what the Information Literate initiative is hoping to combat.


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