Promoting Health Literacy for Families

Marco Beltran

By Marco Beltran

Imagine going to your doctor's office and signing a confidentiality form that you don't quite understand. Think of the frustration of listening to your health care provider's advice about a new condition but not understanding what caused it, how the treatment works, or ways to prevent complications.

The term "health literacy" is often used in connection with improving individual or family health outcomes. Health literacy is defined as the degree to which a person has the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Essentially, health literacy is how well we can find, understand, and use information to make good health decisions.

Health literacy is not determined by one's level of education. In fact, many of us struggle with understanding health care jargon. This may include deciphering our insurance benefits and knowing which vitamins or over-the-counter medications help with certain symptoms or conditions. However, low health literacy tends to be greater among people with limited education, low incomes, limited English proficiency, as well as with minority populations and older adults.

Individuals who are health literate are better able to:

  • Locate the right health care provider for their condition (e.g., cardiologist vs. rheumatologist)
  • Differentiate between the need for an emergency room visit or scheduled doctor's visit
  • Share pertinent health information during a patient interview
  • Understand their personal health, risk factors, prevention measures, and any treatment plans
  • Accurately take prescribed medications (right amount, right time, right route) and recognize the side effects
  • Understand consent forms
  • Read and understand nutrition labels
  • Feel comfortable asking questions

Unfortunately, people with low health literacy tend to:

  • Be in poorer health
  • Make mistakes when taking medicines
  • Spend more time in the hospital
  • Have higher health care costs
  • Have more missed days of work due to illness
  • Use services to treat complications rather than prevent them

Head Start programs can help promote health literacy among families by giving them the tools they need to make good health decisions. Programs may share health information in the family's home language or role play with families. They might host a health literacy parent meeting and incorporate healthy goals into the family partnership agreement. Programs also may assist families in enrolling in health insurance through

Toddlers and preschool-aged children also can benefit from an environment that includes health literacy. Programs can help build a foundation for healthy choices. Create a setting for children to see, hear, and practice healthy behaviors around toothbrushing, physical activity, healthy eating, and going to the dentist or the doctor.

We make decisions about our health every day. We make them at home, while we shop, and where our children play and learn. Let's continue to promote health literacy for children, families, staff, and ourselves. Health literacy is about making sure everyone is healthy and safe.

For more information on health literacy, explore Health Literacy and Family Engagement on the Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center.

Marco Beltran is a Program Specialist for the Office of Head Start.