Understanding and Promoting Health Literacy

Environmental Health Perspectives, October 2004 | Go to article overview
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Understanding and Promoting Health Literacy


The participating institutes, centers, and offices of the NIH and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) invite investigators to submit research grant applications on health literacy. The goal of this program announcement (PA) is to increase scientific understanding of the nature of health literacy and its relationship to healthy behaviors, illness prevention and treatment, chronic disease management, health disparities, risk assessment of environmental factors, and health outcomes including mental and oral health. There is a need for increased scientific knowledge of interventions that can strengthen health literacy and improve the positive health impacts of communications between health care/public health professionals (including dentists, health care delivery organizations, and public health entities) and consumer or patient audiences that vary in health literacy. Applicants may propose secondary goals of modeling the potential impact of new interventions on future national trends and/or determining the impact of targeted cancer control interventions on population outcome (i.e., evaluating optimal cancer control strategies).

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Many factors affect individuals' ability to comprehend, and in turn use or act on, health information and communication. Proficiency in reading, writing, listening, interpreting, oral communication, and visual analysis is necessary as the modern health system typically relies on a variety of interpersonal, textual, and electronic media to present health information. Individuals and families both must be able to 1) communicate with health professionals; 2) understand the health information in mass communication; 3) understand how to use health-related print, audiovisual, graphic, and electronic materials; 4) understand basic health concepts (e.g., that many health problems can be prevented or minimized) and vocabulary (e.g., about the body, diseases, medical treatments, etc.); and 5) connect this health-related knowledge to health decision making and action taking.

Too often, people with the greatest health burdens have limited access to relevant health information. In addition, health care providers may not communicate effectively with individuals with limited levels of literacy. Low health literacy is a widespread problem, affecting more than 90 million adults in the United States. Low health literacy results in patients' inadequate engagement in and benefit from health care advances, as well as medical errors. Low health literacy is likely to be a major contributor to adverse health outcomes. Research has linked low or limited health literacy with such adverse outcomes as poorer self-management of chronic diseases, less healthful behaviors, higher rates of hospitalizations, and overall poorer health.

This PA invites applications to develop research on health literacy in general areas that include, but are not limited to, the following: 1) modeling and measuring the nature and scope of health literacy; 2) variation in health literacy over the life course or among native and nonnative speakers of English; 3) mediators and moderators of low health literacy; 4) the impact of low health literacy on health outcomes, diseases, behaviors, and treatments, including the contribution of health literacy to informed decision making, adherence to preventative or therapeutic regimens, utilization of health care services, risk avoidance strategies, and other consumer health care-related actions; 5) the identification of effective preventive and other interventions to improve health literacy among populations and to enable the health care and public health systems to communicate effectively across different health literacy levels; and 6) the development of effective methods and new technologies in health literacy research.

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