It’s National Health Education Week! It’s a great time to take a minute to assess what you know about general health, how to access care, and if you know who to ask if you have questions.  

Generally, we understand that literacy means “the ability to read and write.” However, being health literate encompasses quite a bit more. Let’s take a look.

What is Health Literacy? 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Literacy is “the degree to which individuals … [are able] to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.
It essentially affects your ability to complete a variety of commonplace health-related tasks. Being unable to complete these tasks can threaten your ability to adequately care for your or someone else’s health. 


Some examples include filling out forms at your doctor’s office, finding a healthcare provider, understanding how to share health history with your doctor, taking care of yourself and managing medication and illness, and even understanding mathematics.  

Math comes into play when “calculating cholesterol and blood sugar levels, measuring medications, and understanding nutrition labels.” It’s even necessary to help you understand and choose “between health plans or [compare] prescription drug coverage … [and to calculate] premiums, copays, and deductibles. 

Why is it Important? 

The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that approximately 77 million U.S. adults are at basic or belowbasic health literacy. This represents a third of the U.S. population. The majority (53%) fell into intermediate, and a small 12% were proficient. 

It is important to recognize this because not only does it mean that there is a lack of information, but that there is a lot of misinformation as well.  

For example, think about the possibility that most people rely on information they learned in their high school biology class, all while medical science has been rapidly progressing. Health literacy considers the fact that, because of scenarios like this, many people have incorrect, outdated, or incomplete information about the body and the nature and causes of disease.

How to Learn More 

  1. For information on health insurance, check out this page on Understanding Health Insurance. You’ll find definitions of commonly used insurance terms and explanations to help you understand your coverage.

  2. When visiting your doctor, remember that your time with your provider should be protected. When your doctor is in the room with you, this is your time. Use that time to ask questions, to ask for clarification if something didn’t quite make sense, and make sure you repeat what you understood for confirmation.
  3. Use reliable sources of information when you research online. This article on How to Determine a Reliable Source on the Internet provides you with some good tips to help you check the validity of the information you find.   

To learn about understanding your health predispositions, read our 23andMe article. For nutrition advice from our registered dietitian, look for articles authored by Debbie James, like this Guide to Grains. To access our monthly blog post highlights, subscribe to our newsletter today! 


  1. “Quick Guide to Health Literacy.”, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,


  2. “America’s Health Literacy: Why We Need Accessible Health Information.” America’s Health Literacy: Why We Need Accessible Health Information, An Issue Brief from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008,