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A Beginners Guide to Health Literacy and Health Literacy Tools

students studying health literacy

Introduction to Health Literacy

Back in 1999, health advocate and educator Helen Osborne had a desire for health literacy reform. She recognized the need for health information to be communicated in plain language to the public. Her passionate idea spread rapidly.


Now, over 20 years later, her cause has blossomed into a movement of international expanse to observe and advocate for greater health literacy. Entities of all kinds, from hospitals to government agencies, offer programs, courses, materials, and training to fuel the goal of health literacy for all.


 What is Health Literacy?

The National Library of Medicine defines personal health literacy as, “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.”1

Examples of personal health literacy include understanding prescription drug instructions, clearly absorbing doctors’ directions and consent forms, and successfully navigating a complex health system.

However, health literacy isn’t solely an individual’s responsibility.

Health organizations are also responsible to provide clear information, digestible health data, and consumable digital information that offers the greatest clarity to the public. Thus, health literacy includes both personal and organizational effort.  


Does America Have Low Health Literacy?

In the United States, about 88 million adults lack basic health literacy. Health literacy is measured by how well patients understand basic health information in order to make the proper health decisions.

Low health literacy is extremely common.

This is why health literacy skills and patient education materials are so important to health communication. However, as patient health literacy increases and health care providers improve health literacy, these statistics can be overturned.

The end goal is complete patient understanding to make the best health decisions. All healthcare providers should assess patient health literacy and provide clear resources and services needed to help patients make correct responses when it comes to their health.

Health literacy doctor prescribing medicine

Why are Health Literacy Skills so Important?

Limited health literacy skills hinder millions of people in their health care decisions. Studies have shown that over 40% of Americans find it challenging to access and understand routine healthcare information.2

Health literacy is crucial on many levels:


  • First, clear communication from healthcare sources to patients minimizes decision-making stress and empowers the patient.
  • Second, supplying health literacy information has a global impact. Every country in the world can benefit from individual steps around the world.
  • Third, health literacy educates everyday consumers to be more informed and confident in their healthcare decisions.3


Each health literacy tool should appropriately adapt to each patient’s needs, including older adults and those whose primary language is not English. These resources bring clarity and empowerment as all people navigate the world of healthcare.

Each health care provider should take a valid quick assessment of the health literacy resources in their care. If their health literacy assessment shows room for growth, they should consider adding some of the tools below. They might even want to add a health literacy questionnaire for all new patients.


What are Health Literacy Measurement Tools?

Health literacy tools help people obtain basic knowledge to make the appropriate health decisions. Use the tools outlined in the following sections to get started.

Functional health literacy tools should improve quality of life of each patient, easing the strain of health communication. Health literacy paves the way for optimum health outcomes. Health literacy tools are also used on an organization level for research, clinical or program planning purposes.


What Tool is Most Helpful for Determining Someone’s Health Literacy?

AHRQ (The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality) offers many tools to give you a quick estimate of adult literacy for both English and Spanish-speaking adults. REALM (Rapid Estimates of Adult Literacy in Medicine) is widely used to assess health literacy in English. Both these tools can be found on the AHRQ website. Here you will find health literacy assessment quizzes and answer keys for each quiz.

For a further breakdown of these tools and which one is best for you, reference the section below.


Health Literacy and How to Assess it with AHRQ

AHRQ offers a health literacy assessment through a health literacy questionnaire. You can find this resource here as well as their Health Literacy Tool Shed resources. This page offers many valuable tools including:


  • A short assessment of health literacy in Spanish and English

  • A rapid estimate of adult literacy in medicine (A 7-item word recognition test)

  • A short assessment of health literacy for Spanish adults


These AHRQ-supported tools focus on measuring health literacy in all adults speaking English or Spanish, the most common languages in the US. If you’re new to health literacy, consider starting with the “rapid estimate of adult literacy test.” For optimal results, have a professional healthcare worker guide you through the assessment, or reach out to one if you come across something you don’t understand. These tools are useful on an individual level and as resources for public health institutions.

customers filling health insurance forms 

Where Can You Find Resources to Improve Your Health Literacy?

The Health Literacy Resource Hub provides an online database of extremely helpful web resources and patient education materials for health literacy. They offer many engaging articles and pictures to teach learners about health and the nature of the human body. The information presented was derived through a review of literature from the peer-reviewed literature at Harvard. A highly trusted source.

Limited health literacy skills do not have to handicap you. Simple health literacy measures can bolster your confidence and skyrocket your health communication practices.


More Adult Literacy Tools

Many health literacy assessments may lack reputable backing. When browsing health literacy resources, consider the source. Established health care bodies and recognized public health organizations are the best place to start.

That said, here are some trusted health literacy resources to get you started:

The CDC supplies online resources to expand health literacy and improve the health literacy in your organization. In addition, many trusted health organizations such as WHO and offer free training and additional resources online to help you understand health topics in an easy way. Be curious, and explore what these sites have to offer. Enjoy the journey into health literacy. Already confident in your health literacy skills? Help others along the way by bringing awareness and offering support where health literacy is needed.



We all want to be empowered by the best and most current information. Invest in yourself and others by helping to spread the mission of health literacy. You can further this mission in many ways by engaging in health discussions, sharing resources, or learning online with free health courses.


No health literacy measure is too small.


Small actions bring great clarity to our individuals and our world.


American Biotech Supply

Our ABS line proudly supports health literacy. We value clarity in our health equipment, using trusted standards like the NSF/ANSI 456 vaccine standard that keeps pharmaceuticals and vaccines stored at optimal temperatures. We also sell select products with Energy Star certification and AABB compliance. These standards give you peace of mind about our products, without having to understand the intricacies of the engineering behind them. 

Explore today. ABS | American Biotech Supply


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