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Defining health literacy

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Definitions of health literacy have dramatically evolved since the World Health Organization proposed what many consider the first definition in 1998.

Most early definitions of health literacy proposed that it was a set of skills people lacked and placed the burden of understanding complicated health information on them alone. This approach, which is still active today, assumes that healthcare professionals are fully equipped with health literacy skills.

Today, it’s increasingly accepted that health literacy is not a set of skills that people may or may not have and is instead a multidimensional concept influenced by how healthcare systems operate, how healthcare professionals share information, and how patients understand information. To reflect this evolution, in 2016, the National Institute of Medicine published "Considerations for a New Definition of Health Literacy," which members of our team co-authored.

At HLM we believe that health literacy plays an important role in every aspect of health and wellbeing. We know that health literacy ranges from individual decisions to complex interactions with health professionals, and on to the design of health care systems, and health policies. 

Our team has authored many publications on health literacy – from community wellness to social media – and compiled a collection of resources to help people better understand health literacy here.

You can read more about how we approach health literacy here at HLM here.


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