Prevention: A Blueprint for Action. Health Literacy Activities


HHS agencies conduct and sponsor research on the prevalence of low health literacy among specific populations and for specific topic areas; the barriers, skills and needs of low literacy audiences; different audiences’ health attitudes, knowledge, preferences, sources of information, and behaviors; and the health effects of low literacy and low health literacy.  Most of this research is ongoing and part of broad programs in health communication research; specific topic areas, such as cancer, oral health, or dietary practices; or assessment of program operations, such as the National Medicare Education Program.  Examples of health literacy research include:

  • First-ever national assessment of health literacy as part of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education. Data will be available in 2005.
  • An evidence-based practice report on literacy and health outcomes was released in April 2004 by AHRQ.  (A summary of Literacy and Health Outcomes is available online at 
  • The Institute of Medicine report, Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion, sponsored in part by the National Cancer Institute, was released in April 2004.

Guidelines and tools to improve communication with the public.
HHS agencies have developed a large number of guidelines and tools to apply to HHS programs and communication. They address how to develop materials for print, video and Web sites to improve audiences’ understanding.  Most of the agency-developed tools and guidelines are not specific to working with low literacy audiences.  Some are based on plain language principles, and others promote well-recognized good health communication practices.  Examples of guidelines and tools that can be used to improve public understanding include:

Training and skill building.
The Department supports training in clear and effective communication or plain language training for staff, grantees, and health professionals or intermediaries, such as lay community workers.  CDC has a broad-based agency training program in health communication, health literacy, and effective Web-based communication.  Other training activities in the department are individual efforts related to increasing health professionals’ knowledge of how to communicate about a specific health topic or with culturally diverse audiences, increasing translators’ and lay workers’ competence, or broad health communication and health literacy training.  Examples of training and skill building include:

  • Agency and nationwide health communication, health literacy and risk communication training through the health communication certificate program and CDCynergy CDRom modules from CDC.
  • Training of healthcare providers in plain language, clear and effective communication, and health literacy through Area Health Education Centers, funded by HRSA.
  • NIH Plain Language Initiative and Award program – NIH requires the use of plain language in all new documents for the public, government entities and staff, and provides annual awards to staff for the effective use of plain language.

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