The Implications of Limited Health Literacy

April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

This blog post is the second in a series of three excerpts from our recent article, Prioritizing Health Literacy in Your Organization Will Improve Patient Access While Cutting Costs.

There is definitely a link between health literacy and health outcomes, but unfortunately only a small portion of Americans have an adequate level of understanding that is needed to manage their health effectively. While government agencies are making efforts to improve the health of Americans by creating accessible health information, healthcare professionals and systems must work at the same time to ensure patients are receiving understandable health services and information. Improving access of patients to health information has the potential to improve patient health, increase the use of preventive services, decrease the rate of hospitalization, and cut exorbitant healthcare costs.

Health Implications

Both the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published comprehensive reports in 2004 linking limited health literacy and poor health outcomes. In review of these, ODPHP explains, “Both reports concluded that limited health literacy is negatively associated with the use of preventive services (e.g., mammograms or flu shots), management of chronic conditions (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, and HIV/AIDS), and self-reported health. Researchers also found an association between limited health literacy and an increase in preventable hospital visits and admissions.” They cite additional studies that link limited health literacy to other poor health outcomes such as, “misunderstanding instructions about prescription medication, medication errors, poor comprehension of nutrition labels, and mortality” (ODPHP, 2010).

Financial Implications

There is limited research on the impact of health literacy on healthcare costs, but studies suggest that patients with limited health literacy skills have higher rates of hospitalization and use of emergency room services, which is correlated with higher healthcare costs (ODPHP, 2006). One study estimates that the annual cost of low health literacy to the U.S. economy is between $106 billion and $238 billion (Vernon, et. al., 2007). Vernon, et. al. (2007) suggests, “When one accounts for the future costs of low health literacy that result from current actions (or lack of action), the real present day cost of low health literacy is closer in range to $1.6 trillion to 3.6 trillion.”


Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP). (2010). National action plan to improve health literacy. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from https://health.gov/communication/HLActionPlan/pdf/Health_Literacy_Action_Plan.pdf

Vernon, J. A., Trujillo, A., Rosenbaum, S., & DeBuono, B. (2007). Low health literacy: Implications for national policy. Retrieved from https://publichealth.gwu.edu/departments/healthpolicy/CHPR/downloads/LowHealthLiteracyReport10_4_07.pdf