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Lessons from Health Literacy

October is Health Literacy Month. Regardless of the type of work we do, there’s always a relationship to health, wellness, and quality of life. Let’s look at some of the lessons we can take from the world of health literacy and apply to our work.

What is health literacy?

In 2020, the US Department of Health and Human Services introduced a two-pronged definition of health literacy as part of their Health People 2030 campaign. This definition breaks down health literacy into two categories: personal health literacy and organizational health literacy.

A graphic with the definitions of personal and organizational health literacy from the CDC

Personal health literacy encompasses most of what people think about in the common definition of health literacy, like how a person’s education level might impact their access to health related information. Many traditional health literacy interventions focus on community education to help individuals navigate health systems more easily or take action at the personal level (eat less sugar, etc.).

Organizational health literacy expands the definition to include the responsibilities of organizations to be accessible. How are organizations equitably supporting people so they can address their health needs? Community education is essential, but that will fall short if institutions don’t work to build trust with the community. This happens when institutions seek community input, act with humility and transparency, and share information in a human-centered way.

What’s so great about this two-pronged definition and how does it apply to plain language?

An important piece of plain language is that it’s the writer’s responsibility to make information navigable, understandable, and useful. So much of where inequity takes root in our world is systems that put the responsibility of understanding on the audience. It’s the individual's responsibility to advocate for themself, to ask questions, to request accommodations. But not everyone has access to the same time, resources, and societal privilege to do that safely.

In this updated definition, the burden of information access is shared. Health care organizations are being held accountable for evaluating their own communication practices.

For example, it’s not enough to teach people how to ask questions at the doctor’s office. Doctors need to be taught and responsible for checking their patient’s understanding. This creates more equitable access to health information because communication is not only dependent on whether the patient asks “the right questions.” Medical professionals can create safer and more positive interactions with patients when they acknowledge their power and privilege in that relationship.

A smiling woman Black sits on an exam table talking to a Black female doctor.

How does this apply to my work?

If you don’t work in healthcare, you might be wondering what this has to do with your work. I think there are two takeaways we can all apply to what we do:

1. Everything is health

If you’re unfamiliar with the social determinants of health, you can start by checking out the Health People 2030 overview. Our environments have a profound impact on health outcomes, even things that don’t seem immediately related to health. If you work in housing, you work in health. If you work in workforce development, you work in health. Everything is health.

Icon from the CDC showing the Social Determinants of Health

When we have a holistic understanding of health and see our role in the system, we can better support all communities.

2. Organizational literacy is applicable everywhere

You can apply the concept of organizational literacy to whatever institutions or organizations you work with. Reflect on where systems and processes are creating barriers for the people you work with.

Do you find yourself answering the same questions repeatedly? Does participation consistently drop off a specific step in a process? Join our webinar on October 20th to learn more about designing user-friendly processes.

Plain language focuses on making sure our audience can find, understand, and use the information they need. When we understand health as encompassing all aspects of our lives, we can see our role in health literacy clearly. Whatever services you provide, implementing plain language strategies is one step towards tackling health inequity.

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