An examination of the impact of low literacy on our nation through the lens of health care reveals an interesting dynamic. Literacy levels affect our ability to deliver effective health care, while medical caregivers, particularly those in primary care, are in a powerful position to improve literacy levels.

"Research shows that our non-profit early literacy program results in more frequent reading at home, accelerated vocabulary and critical brain stimulation."

Literacy’s implications

Health literacy, or the ability to take care of our own health and the health of those dependent on us, is strongly correlated with general literacy. At least 1 in 3 U.S. adults has limited health literacy, expressed as an inability to perform basic health tasks such as using an immunization schedule, interpreting a growth chart or following written instructions from a medical provider. At a more critical level, 30 million adults are unable to perform “below basic” health tasks, such as reading instructions about the use or correct dosage of an over-the-counter medication.

Health literacy levels impact health outcomes. After controlling for educational attainment and income, adults with limited health literacy are more likely to be hospitalized, use urgent health services and have poor control of chronic illness. In particular, child health outcomes are affected by limited health literacy in their parents and caregivers. There are a vast number of recommendations for preventive care during early childhood that are written at a complex level that is inaccessible to adults with low literacy.

Providing care and more

Looking at the intersection of literacy and health care from a different perspective shows that primary care has a special role to play in raising literacy levels. Disparities in language ability appear in early childhood and are largely determined by the number and quality of words that young children hear during the first three years. With unparalleled access to families with young children, primary care providers are in a prime position to encourage parents and caregivers to engage with their infants and toddlers.

Research shows that our non-profit early literacy program results in more frequent reading at home, accelerated vocabulary and critical brain stimulation. Working through the primary care system makes this a low-cost and scalable intervention that has the capacity to reach millions of young children in the U.S. and have a dramatic effect on literacy. This brings us full circle, raising literacy levels would—among many other benefits—improve health literacy and thus the effectiveness of our health care system.