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AMWA Comment on Proposed New Definition of Health Literacy

Tuesday, September 3, 2019  


Every 10 years, the federal government develops national objectives that aim to improve the health of our nation. Planning for Healthy People 2030, the fifth rendition of this initiative, is now underway. As part of the planning process, the Advisory Committee on National Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Objectives for 2030 proposed a new definition of health literacy for Healthy People 2030:


“Health literacy occurs when a society provides accurate health information and services that people can easily find, understand, and use to inform their decisions and actions.”


The current definition of health literacy is:

“Health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

The advisory committee invited the public to comment on the proposed new definition. Knowing that health literacy affects the interpretation of any content we create as medical communicators, the AMWA Board of Directors agreed that AMWA should submit a comment. With input from AMWA members with expertise in health literacy, AMWA provided the following public comment:

The American Medical Writers Association provides these comments on the proposed health literacy definition.      

  • Health literacy should be defined as a state, not a transactional event. The proposed definition doesn’t define what health literacy is.
  • Society is not the provider of health information. We understand a desire to define health literacy beyond the recipient, as proposed by Rima Rudd. However, using the term “society” holds no one accountable and places too much emphasis on health information providers. Consequently, other elements of the communication process—the message, channel, and receiver—are unaccounted for. The most important point, which should form the basis of the definition, is that recipients understand health information, not that society (or even a specific sender) provides it. 
  • Health literacy represents a skill set, similar to reading and writing literacy, that both providers and recipients need. Providers must know what recipients specifically need to understand the information, and recipients must ask questions when they don’t understand.
  • We support the use of simpler words in the proposed definition compared with the previous definition (“find” and “understand” rather than “obtain, process, and understand”) and the addition of “use,” which is the ultimate goal of health communication. We suggest a definition similar to this:

“Health literacy is a skill set for both health care providers and communicators as well as current and potential recipients of health care. This skill set enables all parties to communicate clearly with each other to promote and achieve optimal health and well-being.” 


On behalf of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA),

Cyndy Kryder, 2018-2019 AMWA President

Lori L. Alexander, MTPW, ELS, MWC, AMWA Education Director

Susan Krug, MS, CAE, AMWA Executive Director

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