The Importance of Health Education
Health education is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “any combination of learning experiences designed to help individuals and communities to improve their health, by increasing their knowledge or influencing their attitudes.” Anyone can agree that the key outcome of health education is improved health literacy: But, what is health literacy?

This term first appeared in 1974 and was defined by its creator, Dr. Nutbeam, as “The degree to which people are able to access, understand, appraise, communicate information [and] to engage with the demands of different health contexts in order to promote and maintain good health across the life-course.”

Six main themes make up the reasons why health literacy is important to population health:
1.    The large number of people affected
2.    Poor health outcomes
3.    Increasing rates of chronic disease
4.    Health care costs
5.    Health information demands
6.    Equity
The significance of health literacy is further made clear upon examination of some data in reference to each main theme (reference: WHO):

1.    The large number of people affected:

a.    In the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) approximately ninety million adult Americans scored at low or subpar proficiency levels in general literacy. This meant that participants had “trouble finding pieces of information or numbers in a lengthy text, integrating multiple pieces of information in a document, or finding two or more numbers in a chart and performing a calculation”.

2.    Related to poor health outcomes

a.    Drawing from the prior theme, people with low and subpar general literacy have low health literacy. This results in poorer health status, higher rates of hospital admission, less adherence to prescribed treatments, and overall increased mortality rates.

3.    Increasing rates of chronic disease
a.    Self-managing chronic diseases requires being health literate. This includes understanding complex medical regimens, planning and making lifestyle adjustments, making informed decisions, and understanding how to access health care when necessary. A lack of skill in self-managing chronic disease results in less than preferable health outcomes.

4.    Health care costs
a.    Patients with limited health literacy had higher rates of hospitalization than those with adequate health literacy and could utilize more health resources.
b.    Low health literacy costs the U.S. economy in the range of $106 billion to $238 billion annually.

5.    Health information demands
a.    Upon assessment of 800 peer-reviewed studies on the assessment of health-related materials, it was found that there was a discrepancy between the level of the reading materials and the reading skills of the intended audience. The use of technical language made many health-related resources unnecessarily difficult to use.

6.    Equity
a.    A person’s literacy levels are influenced by many factors and conditions. These include education, personal ability, early childhood development, ageing, living and working conditions, gender, culture and language.
b.    Undoubtedly, efforts have been made, and continue to be made, to improve health literacy nationally and internationally.  In fact, the U.S. Institute of Medicine (IOM), 2004, proposed the following health literacy framework to identify points of intervention to increase individual’s health literacy. 
Much of the IOM’s recommendations emphasize interventions through the educational system: Health literacy should be incorporated into educational curricula and be a required standard of competence. It is up to parents and educators alike to provide our children with the opportunity to sign up for and participate in educational courses aimed at improving health literacy, with the ultimate goal of ensuring a healthy future for our children.

Nilay Aykent, M.D. graduated from New York University with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology, prior to obtaining her degree as a physician from the prestigious Sydney University School of Medicine. Over the past eighteen years, Nilay has been involved in various forms of education, including private and homeschool instruction. She is currently an educator at Worldly Pupil – an online provider of courses for homeschool students. She teaches a variety of health science classes, physics, calculus, etymology, and standardized test prep. Please visit: or email her at: