Recollect your first day at school. Everything around you was new – The building, the people and  information they said. You felt scared and worried. You would have waited for the bell to ring. So, that you can rush back home – to a place and to the people you are familiar with. 

As the days passed by, you started enjoying school. You made friends, developed flair towards a subject and enjoyed extracurricular classes. So, what made school life so endearing? What led to the transition in your perception about school? 

The answer to all these questions can be summed up in one word – Literacy. 

Our teachers taught us the three basic but important skills of literacy– Reading, writing and arithmetic. Literacy provided us with the ability to understand languages and decipher numbers. It gave us the confidence to talk to others and helped us to understand, process and build meaning into all aspects of our daily living. With this superpower, we became knowledgeable, confident and ready to face the world. 

Today, literacy has an additional component – digital literacy. Digital literacy is one’s ability to find, evaluate and communicate information through the various digital platforms. It helps us to converse with people around the globe without stepping out of our home. And access information with a simple click of a button. 

Health Literacy

Health literacy is an extension of our literacy. Many of us are not able to make complete sense of our interaction with a doctor or our experience when we are admitted in a hospital. We sometimes misunderstand the doctor’s orders or post-surgery care instructions that are handed over to us. We don’t ask questions or clarify doubts out of fear or ignorance. 

On the other hand, a doctor or a nurse takes care of several patients every day. And it becomes a regular chore for them. So, often they overlook explaining a prescription or a procedure. To them it is just another task on their to-do list, often overlooking the fact that the patient would be unfamiliar with it or may be confused or may feel overloaded with the medical information delivered to them. 

All this may lead to misunderstanding which in turn will affect patient outcome in an adverse manner. 

So, how can this be avoided? 

Consider how we developed literacy in school. Of course, teachers played an important role, but it was our involvement and effort that made the difference in our literacy levels. Similarly, doctors and other healthcare workers can be of help. But health literacy is primarily gained by our engagement in learning about how to maintain our health and manage illness. 

What is health literacy?

Health literacy refers to our ability to understand and use health information to make good and timely decisions about our health condition and disease. 

As in literacy, it is important to note that health literacy is not just limited to reading and writing skills, it also includes the ability to understand and use numbers and to make sense of health data like investigation reports. Our digital skills also play an important role.

In summary, literacy is the ability to read and write, while health literacy is the ability to read, understand and use health-related information to make good decisions about one’s health and disease.

Why is health literacy important?

Health literacy helps us, first, to understand the various aspects of the healthcare system, such as outpatient clinics, inpatient stay etc. Next, it helps us to access and navigate through various components of healthcare system. Third, it enables us to read and understand medical information, such as prescription labels and instructions for taking medication. It also helps us process information and integrate it into our lifestyles to stay fit and healthy.

You can now appreciate how good health literacy can help us to better manage our health and disease and to make better use of the healthcare resources available to us. 

Low health literacy, on the other hand, can lead to several problems. People with low health literacy may have difficulty in understanding medical information and instructions, which can lead to mistakes in taking medication or following treatment plans. Due to a lack of understanding of how the healthcare system works, they have difficulty in navigating the healthcare system and to access the care they need.

Overall, health literacy is an important aspect of overall health and well-being for an individual. By taking steps to improve our health literacy, we can become a more informed and active participant in our health care.

Health literacy is not just for individuals or patients. Good health literacy is important for entire population. Improving health literacy is one strategy by which nations can improve the health of their citizens.

How can we improve our health literacy?

To improve our health literacy, we can start by taking steps to learn more about our health and the healthcare system. This might include reading health-related articles, talking to our healthcare provider or taking a class on health literacy. Brochures or videos can also help us understand medical information and instructions.

A word of warning about accessing or believing what is circulated in social media such as WhatsApp, YouTube and to referring to Dr. Google in general! Most of this information is not validated by scientific methodology. Many of the posts and forwards are experiences of an individual and they may not apply to the general population. Be aware that an aspect of being a health literate is to use digital literacy skills to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of information. 


  1. Very good article with information on Health literacy.very useful one. Worth reading & Sharing repeatedly.Thank you so much for sharing the link

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