Health Literacy

Health Literacy

Roughly half of American adults read below a sixth grade level. Yet, most health information — educational pamphlets, discharge instructions, medication details — is written at a 12th-grade level. This gap leaves room for misunderstandings and mistakes for patients, which can lead to poor health outcomes and increased medical costs. At the broader public level, it also creates space for misinformation and disinformation to take hold, as happened with the Covid-19 vaccines, jeopardizing our collective health.

Yet, as we explore in this issue, hospitals and local groups are working to improve the public’s health literacy. Their efforts include plain-language communications, interpreter services, patient advocacy, and more. 


How does your health literacy stack up? 

Test yourself with our quiz.


1. Who owns your medical records?

A) You

B) The state

C) The healthcare provider 

D) No one


2. Which procedure can tell you whether you’re at risk for heart disease, show how well your kidneys are functioning, or reveal that you’re developing diabetes?

A) Blood draw

B) CT scan

C) X-ray

D) Colonoscopy


3. What do health literacy specialists do?

A) Reduce medical costs

B) Improve outcomes

C) Educate people on the health  issues affecting them

D) All of the above


4. Besides the patient, who can attend a hospital discharge discussion?

A) People with medical backgrounds only

B) A family member or friend

C) Pets

D) No one


5. What percentage of adults in the U.S. uses wearable health tech (i.e., smartwatches)?

A) 15%

B) 25%

C) 30%

D) 70%


1, C) The healthcare provider. At least, that’s the case in Illinois. Federal law hasn’t decided, and ownership laws vary by state. To find out how to access your records, read “Records Request”. 

2, A) Blood draw. In fact, blood work ranks among the most common diagnostic methods. Read more in “Take Charge of Your Numbers”. 

3, D) All of the above. Only 12% of American adults have proficient health literacy skills, according to the Milken Institute, a non-profit think tank. For more on how hospitals are trying to improve health literacy, see “Teaching Hospitals”. 

4, B) A family member or friend. If a support person is unable to attend in person, ask if they can listen in over speakerphone. You can also request paperwork early to help formulate questions and make plans in advance. For a list of questions to ask during discharge, see “Heading Home”. 

5, C) 30%. Smartwatches, patches, jewelry, and even clothing are capable of capturing real-time data and empowering clinical decision-making. Learn about the latest tech for tracking lifestyle habits and diagnosing and treating medical conditions in “Keeping Track”.

Originally published in the Fall 2022/Winter 2023 print issue.