Health Literacy 101: An Introduction to the Field

Michael Villaire, MSLM

Michael Villaire, MSLM

Michael Villaire gave an introduction to the field of health literacy. He began by defining health literacy. His favorite definition is the one from the 2008 Calgary Charter: “Health literacy allows the public and personnel working in all health-related contexts to find, understand, evaluate, communicate, and use information.” Villaire prefers this definition because “it puts the onus for health literacy on the provider, as well as the consumer.”

The healthcare system is bewildering to many people, Villaire said. He gave the example of the challenges people face in signing up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Villaire talked about the components of health literacy: reading and writing, listening and verbal communication, numeracy, and self-efficacy. He gave some illustrations of how challenging numeracy is for many of us.

Villaire talked about the relationship between health literacy and culture. He noted that there is often a mismatch between provider demand and patient skill level, as well as between reading level and materials. And he discussed health literacy’s strong relationship with safety, quality, and health disparities. It can be hard to move an organization forward to health literacy. But “there are certain terms that will help you move forward with your goals. Two words: safety, quality,” Villaire said.

Examples were shared of how patients can be harmed when providers fail to give clear instructions. He put the burden on providers to improve their communication. “The fact that someone does not understand the way we choose to communicate is not their problem. It’s a barrier. It’s something we need to address,” Villaire said. “Health literacy is about dealing with the barriers.”

Villaire discussed health literacy myths and listed the barriers to health literacy. He also offered health literacy statistics and noted that people don’t like to admit they don’t read well because they are ashamed, therefore limited literacy is under-reported. He closed the session by explaining why health literacy matters and discussed the impact of low health literacy.