Health Literacy as a Social Determinant of Health in Asian American Immigrants: Findings from a Population-Based Survey in California

J Gen Intern Med. 2015 Aug;30(8):1118-24. doi: 10.1007/s11606-015-3217-6. Epub 2015 Feb 26.


Background: Asian American immigrants have a lower level of health literacy than non-Latino whites, but their level of health literacy and its impact on health outcomes may differ among subgroups.

Objective: We investigated the level of health literacy across five subgroups of Asian American immigrants and explored the association between health literacy and self-rated health status and symptoms of depression.

Design: We utilized a cross-sectional survey research design and a population-based sampling strategy using the 2007 California Health Interview Survey (CHIS).

Participants: We sampled 30,615 non-Latino whites and 3,053 Asian American immigrants (1,058 Chinese, 598 Koreans, 534 Filipinos, 416 South Asians, and 447 Vietnamese).

Main measures: We used two questions as proxy measures to assess the level of health literacy in non-Latino whites and in both aggregated and disaggregated Asian American immigrant groups. We then investigated the effect of health literacy on two main health outcomes: self-rated health status and depression symptoms.

Key results: The level of health literacy varied across the five subgroups of Asian American immigrants. Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese groups had the lowest levels of health literacy, while Filipinos showed the highest level. Health literacy was positively correlated with health status in Chinese and Korean immigrants, and negatively correlated with depression symptoms in Korean and South Asian immigrants.

Conclusion: We found heterogeneity in health literacy among Asian American immigrants and found that health literacy had varying associations with health outcomes. The aggregated Asian American immigrant group results may mask the true health disparities that each Asian American immigrant group faces. Koreans were the only group found to have a significant association between the proxy for health literacy and both health outcomes. Further research is needed to better understand the causes of heterogeneity and to investigate health literacy as a critical determinant of immigrant health.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Asian Americans / ethnology*
  • California / ethnology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depressive Disorder / ethnology*
  • Emigrants and Immigrants*
  • Female
  • Health Literacy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Health Status*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Sampling Studies
  • Social Determinants of Health / ethnology*