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Health Literacy and the NICHD

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Improving People’s Understanding of Their Health

Two women looking at a medical brochure

“Health literacy” is the ability to obtain and understand health information to help make appropriate health decisions for oneself and one’s family.

Consumer activities related to health literacy can range from the seemingly simple—such as understanding how and when to take a medication—to the more complex—such as managing chronic health conditions—and everything in between. 

Health literacy includes literacy—the ability to read and understand text—and numeracy—the ability to understand and use numbers. It also relies on a person’s grasp of basic health concepts, such as the parts of the body and the causes and treatments of disease.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about one-half of adults have adequate levels of health literacy. As one might imagine, low health literacy is associated with worse health outcomes. People with limited health literacy are less likely to take advantage of preventative services, less likely to manage chronic diseases well, and more likely to visit the hospital for conditions that could have been prevented. Although it affects people of all races, ages, incomes, and education levels, low health literacy is disproportionally common among some minority groups, people with lower income and education levels, seniors, and recent immigrants. Improving health literacy is a key part of efforts to improve the health of the nation and to lower health care costs.

The NICHD recognizes the urgent need to improve people’s understanding of health information and health services as a way to also improve their health. The Institute supports and conducts research related to health literacy, including methods of characterizing health knowledge and increasing health literacy and numeracy, as well as research on overall literacy, numeracy, and health/science education, which also influence health literacy.

The NICHD supports several projects and research activities related to health literacy:

Helping Parents Give the Right Dose
Preventing Early Childhood Obesity
Focusing on Teen Health Literacy
Tailoring Texts to Individuals
More Information

Helping Parents Give the Right Dose

According to a 2006 Institute of Medicine report, about one-half of children in the United States have accidentally received the wrong dose of over-the-counter liquid medications from their parents or caregivers. One factor in this type of error is low health literacy, which can result in confusion about the various amounts and measuring devices specified by for different medications.

One study supported by the NICHD Child Development and Behavior (CDB) Branch aims to identify evidence-based strategies for labeling and dosing over-the-counter and prescription pediatric medications that can reduce or eliminate errors for English- and Spanish-speaking parents. The researchers hope that their work will lead to new policies for labeling children’s liquid medications that will help overcome parents’ difficulties in understanding health information related to these medicines. To learn more about this project, visit Promoting Safe Use of Pediatric Liquid Medications: A Health Literacy Approach.

Preventing Early Childhood Obesity

Another project supported by the CDB Branch is investigating whether a health communication toolkit for pediatricians can promote healthy family lifestyles and prevent obesity among young children. Obesity is linked to numerous chronic health problems, and it starts early in life: According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, more than 10% of preschool-aged children are obese.

The researchers are working in primary care settings in under-resourced communities in Florida, North Carolina, New York, and Tennessee to track the health of 1,000 children ages 4 months to 6 months through 2 years. The researchers are examining whether a toolkit that is specially designed for use with patients who have low health literacy, combined with health communication training for the pediatricians, can prevent or reduce the problem of young-childhood obesity. To learn more about this study, visit Addressing Health Literacy and Numeracy to Prevent Childhood Obesity.

Focusing on Teen Health Literacy

The independence that comes with adolescence often includes independence in making health decisions. Teens may visit a health clinic on their own or be in charge of taking their own medications. But there’s a lot that we don’t know about teen health literacy because research hasn’t focused much on teens’ specific strengths and weaknesses in this area. A pilot study supported by the CDB Branch is testing a new health literacy assessment aimed specifically at teens. The investigators hope that, when finished, this new tool will serve as a way for health care providers and health researchers to get a clearer picture of how much adolescents understand about their health and their health care decisions. To learn more about this study, visit Assessing Health Literacy for Adolescents: A Pilot Study.

Tailoring Texts to Individuals

Another study supported by the CDB Branch is exploring how individuals’ reading-related skills affect their health literacy. Usually, texts that are written for the average person take a “one size fits all” approach, even though someone’s reading ability can be shaped by several different skills, such as short-term memory and word-decoding ability. This study is examining how individuals’ unique reading-related skills affect their understanding of various health texts. Then, the researchers will use this knowledge to create texts that are specially tailored to readers’ particular skill profiles. To learn more about this study, visit Health Literacy: A Psycholinguistic and Cognitive Investigation.

More Information

For more information on health literacy, select one of the following links:


Originally Posted: November 26, 2012

All NICHD Spotlights

Last Reviewed: 11/26/2012
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