What is health literacy?

October is health literacy month, so it’s appropriate to use this as the month I kick off a blog about health information.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.” 

A number of factors impact your health literacy, such as

  • Communication barriers between patients and providers.
  • The amount of information given to the patient (either too much information or too little).
  • Cultural norms that influence what subjects are “taboo” topics. 
  • Your mental health, or even just your mental state at the time of an appointment. 

Health literacy is further impacted by conflicting reports in the media and misinformation shared on social media.

Fortunately, you can improve your health literacy by seeking out additional information on your health. Here are some other resources and tips to help you find credible information. 


*Medline Plus.gov: This website is a joint project between the National Library and Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. Medline Plus provides information, including videos and links to other sites, on various health conditions and topics, medications, medical tests, and healthy recipes. The website has English and Spanish versions.

*Heathline.com: Healthline provides content on physical and mental health that is reviewed and fact-checked by clinicians and qualified health writers. The Healthline team monitors health and wellness topics and updates articles when new information is available.

*NIH MedlinePlus Magazine: This is a quarterly magazine published by the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health. You can subscribe for free. Each issue has a different health topic.

*Mayo Clinic: The Mayo Clinic is a leading non-profit clinical and research institution. Its Diseases and Conditions page allows you to search for comprehensive patient education materials on various health topics.

*JAMA Network Patient Information: JAMA’s (Journal of the American Medical Association) website features a section devoted to providing easy to understand patient education materials. You can also create a free, personalized account on the website to save information related to your specific health interests.

*Nemours Kids Health: Nemours is a non-profit children’s health network. This website has health information for kids, teens, and parents. There is even a section for educators with material that can be used in the classroom. 


*Look for the HONcode icon. This icon indicates the website is abiding by the Health on the Net Foundation Code of Conduct. Not all credible websites carry this label, though, so just because a site doesn’t have it doesn’t mean that site isn’t credible. Learn more about the HONcode

*If you’re relying on the ending of the site (or the domain name extensions) to give you clues about a site’s credibility, it is best to look for .gov (U.S. federal government) or .edu (K-12 and higher education) extensions. Government and education websites are not biased in favor of any specific agenda and are presenting you with facts.

*Choose sources related to established medical organizations since these groups aim to present you with credible, unbiased health information. These groups include hospitals (i.e. Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic), non-profit health organizations (i.e. American Cancer Society, American Heart Association), or medical professional associations (i.e. American Medical Association and JAMA, American Nurses Association). 

*If you aren’t sure about the credibility of the site’s organization or author or if you’re unsure of the information contained within the site, open up another tab on your web browser (Google, Bing, Edge, Explorer, etc.) and do some investigation. Search for the name of the author or organization to see if they have the proper credentials to write about this topic. Confirm whether the facts are presented accurately on the website. This is known as lateral reading. 

In the coming months, I hope to focus on specific health topics that are being talked about in the news or in pop culture rather than more abstract topics like health literacy; however, health literacy is important, and helping you improve your health literacy is something I hope to do with this blog. 

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