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By Andrew Pleasant, Rima E. Rudd, Catina O’Leary, Michael K. Paasche-Orlow, Marin P. Allen, Wilma Alvarado-Little, Laurie Myers, Kim Parson, and Stacey Rosen
April 04, 2016

National Academy of Medicine


The field of health literacy has evolved over the decades. While early work focused on individual skills (and deficits) and specific products (brochures and documents, for example), we, the authors, have come to a greater appreciation that health literacy is multidimensional—it includes both system demands and complexities as well as the skills and abilities of individuals. The individuals may be patients or family members, and the providers of information may be health care providers, protocol developers, insurance organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and others.

To personalize and attach the study of health literacy to a variety of disciplines, various experts have come up with such terms as “oral health literacy” and “environmental health literacy,” which help to connect specific content to the central concept. But we believe it is important to generate a renewed and focused discussion about the definition of health literacy to ensure that the definition actually reflects today’s understanding of health literacy as multidimensional. Furthermore, health literacy operates in a wide variety of settings and mediums. So, we believe a definition should include a description of this multidimensionality; an explanation of a variety of settings and modes and media; and the unique psychological impact of health literacy on empowerment and health decisions. It should also be tangible, and, finally, it should be testable.

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