Call to Action: Health Literacy Promotion in Medical Social Work

What is “Health Literacy”?

Janet M. Liechty, author of “Health Literacy: Critical Opportunities for Social Work Leadership in Health Care and Research” (2011), defines health literacy as, “…the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to appropriate health decisions” (p.99).



What’s so good about it?

Good health literacy has been shown to lead to a higher access to health care and to better quality quality health care, both of which lead to better health results (Liechty, 2011, p.99).


 How big is the problem?

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy reported that, in 2003, more than a third of the U.S. population had low health literacy (Liechty, 2011, p.99).

Studies on health care literacy functioning in U.S. show that 12% areproficient, 52% intermediate, 22% basic, and 14% below basic. Those who scored basic or below are unable to manage their own health care needs (Liechty, 2011, p.100).


What happens without it?

Without health literacy people cannot manage their health care needs because they are unable to communicate their health needs. As a result,they will not receive proper care and may end up with more health problems then when they started. Many will develop also receive higher health care costs because they do not understand what they are paying for (Liechty, 2011, p.99).

Cost of health care increases for those with low health literacy due to self-reported low health, higher rates of hospitalization, longer hospital stays, and higher number of ER visits (Liechty, 2011, p.101).

About $106 to $238 billion is spent on those with low health literacy every year (Liechty, 2011, p.101).

Why is it a social work issue?

Liechty explains that health literacy should be important to medical social workers because it, “…often coexists with other social disadvantages such as low levels of education, lack of medical insurance, and poverty, exacerbating its effects on vulnerable populations frequently served by social workers” (2011, p.99).



What can be done?

There are many solutions to this problem. Some include, educating and supporting patents, health care accommodations from providers, and overall changes to the health care system (Liechty, 2011, p.99).




Works Cited

Liechty, J. M. (2011). Health Literacy: Critical Opportunities for Social Work Leadership in Health Care and Research. Health & Social Work, 36(2), 99-107.

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