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Health Literacy Program

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is the ability to read, understand, remember and use information to make decisions about your health. Being health literate also means you can follow your health care provider's treatment instructions.  People with low health literacy understand less about their medical conditions and treatments, and report a lower health status overall.  They also are less likely to use preventive care services and have higher rates of hospitalization.

Being health literate will:

  • Help you find care and use services;
  • Help you care for yourself;
  • Allow you to make your own decisions about your health and care;
  • Help you understand how to improve your health; and
  • Allow you to be more comfortable talking to your health care providers.

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1 in 10 adults in the US has proficient health literacy, which means that 9 in 10 adults need help finding, understanding and using health information.

What is happening in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania is one of only 20 states that has made health literacy a priority. The Pennsylvania Health Literacy Coalition (PAHLC) was created in 2014 through a collaboration with the Health Care Improvement Foundation.  It works with Thomas Jefferson University to provide trainings across the commonwealth for health care providers and patient peer educators.  To date, it has:

  • Trained over 17,000 health care professionals in 26 counties including rural, suburban, and urban regions of the Commonwealth;
  • Trained more than 100 patient peer educators who have reached more than 1,500 members of their communities; 
  • Collected data to better understand the health literacy needs of immigrants and refugees and the role of community-based organizations in meeting these needs; and
  • Assisted participating healthcare organizations make changes to staff and patient education practices, their websites, signage, and internal policies to better address health literacy. This year alone they assisted with 179 activities.
Health literacy trainings map
Counties in yellow have hosted health literacy trainings

The PAHLC continues to broaden its outreach, create partnerships and reach those areas not yet served.

Many patients feel embarrassed about their health literacy level, causing them to not speak up to their provider when they don't understand something. One tool that helps patients take a more active role in their health care is the Ask Me 3 Questions tool.  Patients can use this tool to better understand their health conditions and what they need to do to stay healthy.  Ask your provider:

  1. What is my main problem?
  2. What do I need to do?
  3. Why is it important for me to do this?

Contact Information:

Health Literacy Program
PA Department of Health
Room 1008 Health and Welfare Building
625 Forster Street
Harrisburg, PA 17120-0701
Phone: 717-787-5900