Solving America’s Health Literacy Problem Starts Here

Family Health


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder


Most people understand being “literate” as being able to read and write your native language. But what about being “health literate”? If you’re like 88 percent of the U.S. population, you’re probably not as health literate as you should be, and this can have a negative impact on your health.

So do you know what health literacy is and the role it plays in helping you get and stay your healthiest? And what should you do to be as health literate as possible?

To give you a tangible example of how important health literacy is, one hospital reported about a diabetic patient who was prescribed daily insulin shots. As is common practice, the hospital staff taught him how to inject the insulin by practicing on an orange. Shortly after leaving the hospital, he was back with high blood sugar levels.  

It turns out that when he got home, he continued to inject the insulin into an orange and then ate the orange pieces. How did this happen? The man simply did not understand what he was supposed to do. He was not health literate.

“Health literacy” is defined in different ways. But the most common definition is found in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). It is defined as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.” This capacity is not necessarily related to how many years of education you have or your reading and speaking abilities. You may be a brilliant author or orator and still have marginal or no literacy when it comes to health care.

Individuals with some degree of health illiteracy may have problems with the following:

  • Effectively using health information (such as medical pamphlets or guidelines) to determine how often to get preventative screening. Understanding these guidelines may determine whether or how often you should get tests such as mammograms or colonoscopies.
  • Understanding how to take medications correctly. Only 50 percent of people with marginal health care literacy consistently take medications as directed.
  • Knowing how to follow through with instructions from a health care provider about how to manage a chronic disease. Usually, health illiterate patients are embarrassed about not understanding instructions and do not ask questions or ask for clarifications.
  • Reading and acting appropriately with consent forms, appointment confirmations and hospital discharge instructions.
  • Calculating or using tools to measure things such as hypertension, blood sugar levels, medication amounts and even comparing health care plans to decide which is best for their needs.

Being health illiterate also makes it much harder to find the information and services you need to get and stay healthy. It may impact your ability to effectively communicate your symptoms and make the most appropriate health care decisions for you and your family. This is especially debilitating when you consider those groups most impacted by health illiteracy, such as older adults, low-income individuals and those with chronic diseases. Even if you are usually health literate, you could find yourself moving towards health illiteracy.

  • You may not be really familiar with how your body works and the terms used to describe bodily systems and functions.
  • You may be faced with a health condition that requires ongoing and perhaps complicated self-care, such as what could happen with cancer aftercare, heart surgery or diabetes.
  • You may need to evaluate multiple options and opinions, such as agreeing to a surgery, selecting end-of-life treatment options or choosing one medication over another.
  • You may need to decide how to vote on issues, such as a hospital bond or bans on certain foods, that could impact your family and community.

In addition to the personal costs of health illiteracy to your health, there is also an economic cost. Some estimate this cost to exceed $225 billion a year. Studies also indicate that those individuals with lower levels of health literacy pay, on average, over $2,000 a year more for medications and more than $500 for doctor’s office visits than those with above average health literacy.

Being Health Literate Matters

Having an adequate level of health literacy is important since literally we all will be faced with a situation where we will need to find, understand and use health information and services.  And these situations are not limited to visiting the doctor for an annual physical or going to the hospital. Whether you realize it or not, you are making decisions daily that impact your health.  These include reading a nutritional label to deciding on a cold medication. Being health literate helps protect your health as well as helps you better manage any chronic conditions you or your family may have.

There is credible evidence that if you have a low level of health literacy, you are:

  • Less likely to take advantage of preventative care such as flu shots.
  • More likely to have a longer hospital stay or an extra day or more after major abdominal surgery.
  • More likely to use the emergency room rather than other types of outpatient care.Not receive cancer treatments that best meet your needs and that could impact outcome.
  • More likely to have trouble managing your diabetes with an increased risk for retinopathy (eye disease associated with diabetes that may lead to loss of vision).
  • More  likely to have a lower life expectancy after a heart attack.

How to Be Proactive

By visiting our website at, you’ve taken an important step in increasing your health literacy. In fact, pH Labs was founded for just this reason – to give you the information and tools you need to get and stay your healthiest. Our goal is to ensure that you play a more proactive role in managing your health care. Research has shown time and time again that the better partner you can be with your health care provider, the better the outcome of your health care experience  - whether it be a routine physical, a diagnostic test or ongoing care of a chronic condition.

And, since all the information you find on has been curated by our health care professionals, including medical doctors and health care attorneys, you can rest assured that the information is accurate, easy-to-understand and just as easy to apply to your daily life.

As health care consumers, it is extremely important to be as health literate as possible. This allows us to better communicate and work with our health care provider.  

  • Build trust – While this may be a little uncomfortable, just because your doctor knows more than you (or should), does not mean you should blindly trust them. Learn as much as you can before your next doctor visit and be as prepared as you can. It’s ok for them to earn your trust.
  • Research - As medicine gets more complicated, not all doctors practice in the same way. Different doctors might know more about natural or holistic methods; other doctors might know the latest, daring surgical methods. You can prepare for your doctor’s visits with medical research and studies as well as printouts from credible websites and emails to other doctors in the same specialty.
  • Practice – As funny as that may sound, try doing some role play with a trusted friend or family member to give you more confidence when you talk with your doctor or other health care provider.
  • Ask for what you need - Health care providers sometimes forget that they live in a world with its own language and way of doing things. Keep in mind that you are a consumer and you have the right to ask your doctor to speak in plain language versus medical speak and to give you the opportunity to confirm that you understood what you were told.


Enjoy your healthy life!


The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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