A New Health Literacy Definition Revealed! Here’s What’s Changed.

It’s a new decade, and with that comes a new release of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Healthy People. For those who’ve never heard of Healthy People, it contains the 10-year objectives for improving health and well-being throughout the United States.

Yes, this is one of those “boring government” plans. But something has changed this time around—health literacy is at the forefront. Never before has health literacy been considered in the development and emphasized within the goals of Healthy People. On top of that, the committee debuted a whole new definition for health literacy—well, technically, two new definitions.

You may be thinking, “What’s so important about a new definition? It’s just a sentence.”

On the surface, these changes might seem like nothing. However, every change made by the committee was purposeful, sending powerful messages to the healthcare community about the critical factors needed to improve health literacy.

At Dr. Joe Explains, we think they’ve made some great improvements—encompassing more of the elements that lead to better outcomes.
fall leaves

Let’s take a look at the previous definition, and then we will compare it to the new one.

For the last 20 years, the most prominent definition used in Healthy People, the Patient and Affordable Care Act of 2010, National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, and just about every government document and website article was:1

  • Health literacy is the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services in order to make appropriate health decisions.

For comparison, here are the newly unveiled definitions: 2

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

So what are the critical changes? Since every word change was made for a reason, let’s go through the modifications and why we agree with them.

Acknowledging responsibility: The additional definition.

Old version: health literacy
New version: personal health literacy & organizational health literacy

The most obvious change is that now there are two definitions instead of one. One definition is specific to individuals, and the other focuses on organizations’ role in impacting health literacy.

As an organization whose mission is rooted in improving health literacy, we believe it’s up to the healthcare industry to help make a change. By including a specific definition for organizations, the HHS’s goal is to emphasize health literacy is more than an individual issue; it’s a societal issue.

Only together will we succeed. We need to take on the responsibility.
team work

It’s a process: Use over Understanding.

Old version: obtain, communicate, process, and understand
New version: find, understand, and use

Both the old and new versions of the definition portray that health literacy requires an individual to successfully complete many steps and activities. In other words, health literacy is a process. But what makes the new definition different is where that process ends. It no longer ends at understanding; it ends with use.

Understanding is only a part of the puzzle; individuals must be able to use the information to benefit their health. The word use emphasizes that action is the ultimate goal of health literacy because action is the only thing that alters outcomes.

Therefore, every piece of educational content should also have this same goal—driving for action, not just understanding.
hand full of changing leaves

Goals are individual: Informed verse Appropriate.

Old version: appropriate health decisions
New version: inform health-related decisions and actions

From our careers to our health, everyone has different goals. Since our goals differ, it’s likely that our decisions will too. So, what you consider appropriate for accomplishing your specific goals might not be the appropriate decision to meet someone else’s goals.

The new definition emphasizes that we can’t determine what is appropriate for someone else. However, we can ensure that health consumers are well-informed, enabling them to make the best decisions to match their individual goals.

But they can only decide what is best for them if they understand the consequences of each action.

Thus, to make well-informed decisions, consumers must gain the necessary information and be able to apply it to their life.
Understanding HL book

Turning the Changes into Action

While these definitions are pretty straightforward, applying them can sometimes be messy. There’s a reason we are still working towards the same goal we were a decade ago—health literacy is hard! There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; health literacy requires a multi-angle approach.

Like any overwhelming goal, it’s best to start small and focused. Start by providing actionable information that patients not only understand but also offers support throughout their journey.

How do you create health resources that are both informative and supportive?

It requires a special balance and a unique understanding of the patient mindset. It takes more than just medical specialists; you also need a team of communications, education, and patient experience experts.

Let’s work together to provide materials that help patients make the best decisions for them.

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