Health literacy: critical opportunities for social work leadership in health care and research

Health Soc Work. 2011 May;36(2):99-107. doi: 10.1093/hsw/36.2.99.


One-third of U.S. adults do not have adequate health literacy to manage their health care needs; and low health literacy is a major concern due to its association with poor health outcomes, high health care costs, and health communication problems. Low health literacy is a potential driver of health disparities, and its alleviation is central to the values and concerns of the social work profession. Despite the extensive knowledge and skills that social workers can bring to bear to assist patients with low health literacy, the concept of health literacy is underused in social work scholarship.This gap reflects missed opportunities for social workers to contribute their expertise to the evolving field of health literacy and to strategically align their work with organizational and national priorities.To address this gap, this article provides an overview of health literacy, its relevance to social work, and its representation in disciplinary literature; and it outlines opportunities for health social workers to systematically incorporate health literacy concepts and tools into their practices with patients and families. Implications for a social work research and practice agenda in health literacy are discussed.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Health Literacy*
  • Health Promotion
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Leadership
  • Research
  • Social Work*
  • United States