Overview

Stated simply, health literacy is the ability to find, understand, and act on health information. It is the communication component of health care, based on the interaction between patients and the health care system. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) estimates that navigating the medical environment and understanding the information found there is difficult to impossible for 93 million Americans, or about half the adult population.1 While several vulnerable populations are more likely to have limited health literacy2 the mismatch between patient abilities and the complexities of health information can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, education level, or income. The problem is exacerbated because many health-care professionals are unaware of their patients’ lack of ability and/or lack of understanding. Patients who struggle with general literacy are often too embarrassed to disclose this to their health-care professional. In addition, literate and even highly educated patients may still struggle with understanding health and oral health information. This is an important issue and one that health-care providers, including those in the dental profession, need to recognize in order to improve preventive and treatment outcomes.

Limited health literacy is associated with a variety of poor health outcomes,3 accounting for 7-17% of all personal health care expenses at an annual price tag of $100 to $238 billion.4 The IOM, the Joint Commission, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have all identified improving health literacy as a national priority.1,5,6 Health care professionals in diverse settings are heeding this call to action and exploring different strategies to improve communication with patients. The American Dental Association and other dental professional groups have acknowledged the impact of literacy issues on oral health as well. Many have responded to the call for initiatives aimed at improving oral health literacy, reducing oral health care disparities, and improving the oral health of the nation.