Building Health Literacy Skills

October is Health Literacy Month. But what exactly does health literacy mean and what does it look like? The U.S Department of Health and Human Services defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions”. Essentially, being health literate means that you have the tools and understanding you need to live your healthiest life.

Both patients and health care providers play a role in health literacy. Patients must develop skills to advocate for themselves when they don’t understand their health care provider. And providers must break down health concepts so that all patients understand their health conditions and treatment plans. Throughout this post, we will break down different strategies patients and health care providers can use to strengthen their health literacy abilities.


Have you ever left a doctor’s office and wondered, “What did they say? What does that mean? What do I have to do?”. Unfortunately, this is a very common experience. However, as a patient, you have the right to ask a provider to repeat themselves, use different words, and speak slower. You also have the right to ask as many questions as you need.

Here are five tips to help you be your own best health care advocate:

  • Do your homework. Before the appointment, think of some things you’d like to ask and write them down. You may also want to write down all the things you’re concerned about. Sometimes writing things down before an appointment can help you remember what you want to discuss with the provider. “Doing your homework” can also include making a list of the medications and vitamins you are taking. This can be very helpful for a new health care provider appointment.


  • Bring someone with you. Healthcare appointments can sometimes cause stress or anxiety. To help reduce some of these negative feelings, bring a friend or family member if possible. This person can also help you by taking notes and asking questions.


  • Ask questions. Sometimes it can seem nerve-racking to ask questions, especially if they feel like “silly questions”. But there are no silly questions when it comes to health care. If something doesn’t make sense, ask the health care provider to explain it using different words. Examples of questions you might ask include: “Can you explain what that means?” “Can you say that in different words?” or “How do you spell that?”. Whenever you visit an AppleCare urgent care clinic, you can feel confident in asking your doctor anything that will help you better understand your health or health care services.


  • Take notes. Your health care provider may discuss a lot during a doctor’s appointment, and it may be hard to remember everything. Taking notes can help you remember the key points discussed. This can be very helpful if you visit many health care providers, as notetaking is a great way to keep track of who said what.


  • Request hard copies of information. We are all different learners and may take in information differently. Sometimes it is helpful to have a hard copy of important information to look at. Ask your provider if they have any pamphlets or printouts for you to review at your own time and pace.


Being your own advocate can take time and practice but remember that as a patient, you have a right to understand what is going on with your health and health care.



Health care providers can greatly impact the amount of health information a patient understands. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear when a patient doesn’t understand the information you have shared. However, there are strategies providers can use to best communicate with their patients. Below are four recommended strategies that will help ensure all patients understand how to take care of their health.

  • Use plain language. Breaking down language to the most basic words can greatly help patients understand their health and health care. For instance, using words such as “bad” vs “adverse” or “high blood pressure” vs “hypertension” can help patients understand significantly more information. Need help breaking language down to a plain version? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an “Everyday Words Log” that allows you to quickly find basic, understandable alternatives to difficult words.


  • Ask patients to repeat back what you just explained in their own words. The “teach-back method” can help you determine if a patient understands what you just explained. To use this method, simply ask the patient to explain to you in their own words what you just said. Having them explain it back will allow you to identify and clarify any misunderstandings.


  • Ask open-ended questions. Unlike “yes or no” questions, open-ended questions can provide more context about a patient’s health concerns and how well they understand health information. For instance, asking a patient, “What brings you in today?” can create an invitation for the patient to share what their needs are or what is concerning them, providing an opportunity to learn more about the patient’s situation. Creating opportunities for patients to explain things in an open format can provide more open communication between you and your patients.


  • Ultimately, help the patient feel empowered and encourage them to be advocates for their own healthcare. Encourage your patients to ask questions, do their homework, take notes, or bring a friend or family member to their next appointment. This can greatly empower your patients to advocate for their healthcare.


Advocating for health literacy takes time and involves both health care providers and their patients. For more information or to learn about additional resources that can help build health literacy skills, visit the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.