Health Literacy Consulting How-To Tip
December, 2010

Defining Health Literacy

There are several definitions of health literacy, some more widely accepted and repeated than others. Some definitions focus on an individual’s skills (or perhaps, the lack thereof). Others focus on health-related tasks that patients and caregivers are expected to do. And yet more definitions look outside of traditional health care settings, focusing instead on larger societal concerns.

For what it’s worth, here’s my definition of health literacy: “Health literacy is about mutual understanding. It happens when providers (or anyone on the giving end of health communication) and patients (or anyone on the receiving end) communicate in ways the other can understand.” Helen Osborne, Health Literacy Consulting



I’m glad that there is active discussion about the meaning of health literacy. I hope we soon come up with a definition that suits us all. But first, I propose that we resolve some important, yet answered, questions. Namely:

  • Who is responsible for health literacy? Is it patients, providers, teachers, or someone else?

  • What is the focus of health literacy? Is it about individuals or communities?

  • Where does health literacy happen? Does it occur in the clinic, at home, in school, or elsewhere?

  • When is health literacy needed? Is it in acute care, for disease prevention, during self-management, or at another point along the continuum of care?

  • How do we measure health literacy success? Is it with lower reading grade levels, improved health outcomes, increased levels of patient engagement, or something else?

Let’s keep this important dialogue going. Please email me your thoughts about these unanswered questions. And then let’s work together to define health literacy.

For permission to include Health Literacy Consulting Tips in your organization's newsletter, please contact Helen Osborne by e-mail at:, or by phone at: 508-653-1199.