Health literacy: a review

Pharmacotherapy. 2002 Mar;22(3):282-302. doi: 10.1592/phco.


Illiteracy has become an increasingly important problem, especially as it relates to health care. A national survey found that almost half of the adult population has deficiencies in reading or computation skills. Literacy is defined as the basic ability to read and speak English, whereas functional health literacy is the ability to read, understand, and act on health information. Up to 48% of English-speaking patients do not have adequate functional health literacy. The consequences of inadequate health literacy include poorer health status, lack of knowledge about medical care and medical conditions, decreased comprehension of medical information, lack of understanding and use of preventive services, poorer self-reported health, poorer compliance rates, increased hospitalizations, and increased health care costs. The medical community must acknowledge this issue and develop strategies to ensure that patients receive assistance in overcoming the barriers that limit their ability to function adequately in the health care environment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Educational Status
  • Health Care Costs
  • Health Education / methods*
  • Health Education / standards
  • Health Status
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Language Tests / standards
  • Patient Compliance
  • Patient Education as Topic / methods*
  • Patient Education as Topic / standards
  • Preventive Medicine / education
  • Word Association Tests / standards