Press Release

Embargoed Until Contact

January 18, 2012

Sue Ducat
Director of Communications
(301) 841-9962


From Health Affairs


New Federal Initiative To Increase “Health Literacy”


Bethesda, MD -- Most Americans struggle to understand health information and navigate the health care system, which can lead to preventable hospitalizations, greater use of emergency care, and reduced overall health status. To avoid costly "crisis care," both health professionals and organizations must consider Americans' health literacy skills—that is, their capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions. In 2010 three major government initiatives addressed health literacy and prioritized it as an access, quality, and cost issue for public and private health care organizations. This paper, released today as a Web First by Health Affairs, focuses on the health literacy dimensions of these initiatives: the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, and the Plain Writing Act of 2010. In addition to today’s web release, the article will appear in the journal’s February 2012 issue.

New Federal Policy Initiatives To Boost Health Literacy Can Help The Nation Move Beyond The Cycle Of Costly ‘Crisis Care’
By Howard K. Koh, Donald M. Berwick, Carolyn M. Clancy, Cynthia Baur, Cindy Brach, Linda M. Harris, and
Eileen G. Zerhusen

Koh is assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); Berwick is the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS); Clancy is director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ); Baur is senior adviser for health literacy, Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Brach is a senior health policy researcher at AHRQ; Harris is senior health communication and e-health adviser to the deputy assistant secretary for health, disease prevention, and health promotion at HHS; and Zerhusen is a health insurance specialist in CMS’ Office of Communications.


The HHS National Action Plan has seven goals, all focusing on simplifying and making written materials easier to understand; improving providers’ communication skills; and improving patients’ self-management skills. A 2005 Mayo Clinic study found that patients with limited health literacy report being confused by medical terminology and not having received clear explanations from their health professionals. As part of this initiative and to alleviate this problem, HHS has created free online resources for providers that address health literacy, cultural competence, and limited English proficiency. “Limited health literacy represents a barrier to public health’s quality aims,” say the authors. “The successful implementation of the types of health literacy system adaptations noted in this article can help break the cycle of crisis care and move health literacy from the margins to the mainstream of health care practices.”

About Health Affairs

Health Affairs is the leading journal at the intersection of health, health care, and policy. Published by Project HOPE, the peer-reviewed journal appears each month in print, with additional Web First papers published periodically and health policy briefs published twice monthly at You can also find the journal on Facebook and Twitter. Read daily perspectives on Health Affairs Blog. Download weekly Narrative Matters podcasts on iTunes.

The full text of each Health Affairs Web First paper is available free of charge to all Web-site visitors for a two-week period following posting, after which it switches to pay-per-view for nonsubscribers. Web First papers are supported in part by a grant from The Commonwealth Fund.