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MSN Course Insight: The Basics of Health Literacy

Preview what Walden University students are learning with this required reading taken from the Master of Science in Nursing course Transforming Nursing and Healthcare through Information Technology.

Our bodies are complex. Even the most knowledgeable scientists and healthcare professionals don’t understand every system perfectly. When it comes to the average person, that lack of understanding can go a lot deeper. In fact, many people have only the most basic understanding of how the body functions, which also may mean they have an equally poor understanding of how healthcare works.

As a nurse, part of your job is to help patients better understand their health and any treatment they may need. This understanding is called health literacy. But before you can effectively improve the health literacy of others, you need to understand what health literacy is and why it’s so important.

MSN Course Insight: The Basics of Health Literacy

One overview of health literacy comes from the “Quick Guide to Health Literacy,”1 provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and studied as part of the Transforming Nursing and Healthcare Through Information Technology course offered in Walden University’s Master of Science in Nursing program. “The Quick Guide to Health Literacy” explains the basics of health literacy this way:

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Health literacy is dependent on individual and systemic factors:

  • Communication skills of lay persons and professionals
  • Lay and professional knowledge of health topics
  • Culture
  • Demands of the healthcare and public health systems
  • Demands of the situation/context

Health literacy affects people’s ability to:

  • Navigate the healthcare system, including filling out complex forms and locating providers and services.
  • Share personal information, such as health history, with providers.
  • Engage in self-care and chronic-disease management.
  • Understand mathematical concepts such as probability and risk.

Health literacy includes numeracy skills. For example, calculating cholesterol and blood sugar levels, measuring medications, and understanding nutrition labels all require math skills. Choosing between health plans or comparing prescription drug coverage requires calculating premiums, copays, and deductibles.

In addition to basic literacy skills, health literacy requires knowledge of health topics. People with limited health literacy often lack knowledge or have misinformation about the body as well as the nature and causes of disease. Without this knowledge, they may not understand the relationship between lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise and various health outcomes. Health information can overwhelm even persons with advanced literacy skills. Medical science progresses rapidly. What people may have learned about health or biology during their school years often becomes outdated or forgotten, or it is incomplete. Moreover, health information provided in a stressful or unfamiliar situation is unlikely to be retained.

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What is plain language?

Plain language is a strategy for making written and oral information easier to understand. It is one important tool for improving health literacy.

Plain language is communication that users can understand the first time they read or hear it. With reasonable time and effort, a plain language document is one in which people can find what they need, understand what they find, and act appropriately on that understanding. Key elements of plain language include:

  • Organizing your information so that the most important points come first
  • Breaking complex information into understandable chunks
  • Using simple language and defining technical terms
  • Using the active voice

Language that is plain to one set of readers may not be plain to others. It is critical to know your audience and have them test your materials before, during, and after they are developed. Speaking plainly is just as important as writing plainly. Many plain language techniques apply to verbal messages, such as avoiding jargon and explaining technical or medical terms.

Why is health literacy important?

Only 12% of adults have Proficient health literacy, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. In other words, nearly 9 out of 10 adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease. Fourteen percent of adults (30 million people) have Below Basic health literacy. These adults were more likely to report their health as poor (42%) and are more likely to lack health insurance (28%) than adults with Proficient health literacy. Low literacy has been linked to poor health outcomes such as higher rates of hospitalization and less frequent use of preventive services. Both of these outcomes are associated with higher healthcare costs.

How Can You Help Improve Your Patients’ Health Literacy?

If you want to improve your ability to speak plainly and elevate the health literacy of your patients, one of the best choices you can make is to earn a Master of Science in Nursing. As an MSN nursing student, resources like “The Quick Guide to Health Literacy” are just the beginning of what you’ll study. And learning how to address health literacy is just one of the many skills you can gain.

Once you earn a master’s degree in nursing, you’ll have the knowledge and qualifications you’ll need to pursue a nurse leader role in a variety of nursing fields, depending on your specialty. With an MSN degree, you can become a nurse practitioner, nurse manager, nurse educator, or even an expert in health informatics. A master’s in nursing program can be exceptionally beneficial to your nursing career. And, the good news is you don’t have to leave your current job or cut down on your work hours to make attending an MSN program possible.

Thanks to online learning, attending nursing school is more convenient than ever before. Online MSN programs don’t have a campus you have to live close to and commute to every day. Instead, when you earn a master’s in nursing online, you’ll complete your courses via the internet. Plus, online nursing schools can feature flexible scheduling, giving you the power to choose when in the day you attend class. That means you can attend class from home and at whatever time is most convenient for you and your work schedule.

Online education has made moving from a BSN degree to an MSN a real possibility for working nurses. It’s a great way to advance your career in nursing and, ultimately, advance your patients’ health literacy.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a Master of Science in Nursing degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,

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