For Consumers

Want to Be More Health Savvy?

Health literacy

Red envelope icon for Govdelivery Get Consumer Updates by E-mail

RSS feed orange symbol Consumer Updates RSS Feed

pdf icon small Download PDF (350 K)

En Español

On this page:

To make good health decisions, you need to know how to get and understand basic health information and services. This ability is called “health literacy.” But only about 12 percent of U.S. adults have the skills to manage their health and prevent disease, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. It can be hard for many people to learn how to improve their health because they may lack a basic understanding of health information.

Encouraging health literacy is important to FDA. And it is a key objective of Healthy People, a national health promotion and disease prevention initiative.

“Health literacy is closely tied to good health outcomes,” explains Jonca Bull, M.D., director of FDA’s Office of Minority Health. “Consumers need access to information that’s accurate and easy to understand.”

back to top

Consequences of Low Health Literacy

Health literacy requires basic language skills and knowledge of health topics, reports the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. So, even if you know you’re intelligent, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re smart about your health.

Low health literacy can have negative consequences. “Poor health literacy affects your ability to talk with your healthcare providers and use the healthcare system,” says Karen Canova, an FDA public health advisor. “It also limits your ability to interpret basic numbers (such as cholesterol and blood sugar level), numbers that measure medications, and understand nutrition labels.”

Low health literacy is also linked to higher rates of hospitalization and less frequent use of preventive services. Both of these factors are associated with higher health care costs.

back to top

How FDA Encourages Health Literacy

FDA deals with complex science and health topics, and it is committed to improving how it explains these subjects to patients and healthcare providers. Clear explanation of complex information is also required by the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act. So FDA provides clear and accurate information in several ways.

The agency makes every effort to:

Use plain language. FDA first identifies its audience. Then the agency sends people well-organized messages that use clear sentences and common words. This easy-to-understand language is especially important for popular FDA webpages, such as those that discuss seasonal flu and vaccines for children, and in FDA-approved patient package inserts (consumer-friendly” summaries of patient information), instructions for use, and medication guides (paper handouts that come with many prescription medicines). FDA also uses the principles of plain language in other communications, including videos and posts on Twitter and Facebook.

Create special initiatives. Many FDA Offices and Centers use special initiatives to promote health literacy, says Canova. For instance, FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research offers free online resources that teach you how to buy and use medicines safely. The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition offers tips on how to use the Nutrition Facts Label to reduce your sodium intake. The Office of Medical Policy is working on an initiative to provide patient-friendly medication information for each filled prescription. Plus, the Office of Health and Constituent Affairs operates a web portal called the FDA Patient Network. This portal gives you access to health resources (including a newsletter) and can help you better understand the medical product regulation process.

Translate materials. FDA offers safety updates and other materials for people with limited English skills. For instance, the agency translates FDA Consumer Updates (like this one) into Spanish. It offers also free health publications in multiple languages, such as Arabic and Tagalog.

Follow best practices. The agency has a working group focused on health literacy. The group includes members from across the agency who regularly meet to discuss and recommend helpful communications practices.

back to top

How to Improve Your Own Health Literacy

You can start with FDA’s free publications, including those for women’s health. Then you can read FDA’s online resources for consumers to learn about health topics, such as those about medications and vaccines. FDA Consumer Updates offer free information about the latest agency news and research.

“Health literate consumers tend to choose a healthy lifestyle, know how to seek medical care and know how to use health information correctly,” Canova says. “Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions. You can ask your pharmacist about a medication you are taking. Always ask your healthcare provider to use clear, simple words if he or she says something you don’t understand.”

“FDA employs individuals who are trained in clear communication and plain language. And the agency has a Consumer Hotline for people who have questions and concerns about FDA-regulated products and issues,” Canova adds. You can call the general hotline at 1-888-INFO-FDA (1-888-463-6332).

This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

December 2, 2014

back to top

Page Last Updated: 03/29/2016
Note: If you need help accessing information in different file formats, see Instructions for Downloading Viewers and Players.