Health Literacy

This position statement was updated on 11/7/2012.


  • Health literacy involves a person''s ability to read, hear, analyze, and make decisions about health care.
  • Low health literacy is a barrier to effective health maintenance and leads to health disparities.
  • The patient has a right to understandable information about available choices and the consequences of action or inaction.
  • The medical-surgical nurse should assess the patient''s health literacy and implement appropriate health education strategies. Members of the patient''s support system should be included in the assessment and education strategies.
  • Printed patient education materials should be written at the fifth grade level. Alternate media such as compact discs may be utilized for the patient and members of the support system who have reading difficulty.


According to the 2003 National Adult Literacy Survey (2008), 43% of adults have basic or below basic reading proficiency. The survey also found the United States is the only country among 30 free-market countries where the current generation is less educated than the previous generation.


AMSN recognizes many patients lack the ability to understand the most basic written health care instructions, and health literacy is crucial to patient safety and health maintenance.


Literacy is the ability to read, write, and speak English or language of origin and solve problems at levels necessary to function in jobs and society.

Health literacy is the capacity of an individual to obtain, interpret, and understand basic health information and services, and the competence to use such information and services in ways which are health enhancing.

Low health literacyrefers to the condition in which an individual is unable to comprehend health related information or instructions and may fail to make appropriate decisions regarding their care. Low literacy contributes to ineffective health care maintenance.


National Commission on Adult Literacy, (2008). Reach higher America: Overcoming crisis in the U. S. workforce. In Report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy (sec. Facing the Present). Retrieved September 18, 2009, from

Schyve, P. M. (2007). Language differences as a barrier to quality and safety in health care: The Joint Commission perspective. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22 (supplement 2), 360-361. Retrieved September 18, 2009, DOI: 10.1007/s11606-007-0365-3

Reeves, K. (2008). Health literacy: The newest vital sign. MEDSURG Nursing, 17(5), 286, 296.

White, S., Chen, J., & Atchinson, R. (2008). Relationship of preventive health practices and health literacy: A national study. American Journal of Health Behavior, 32(3), 227-242.