Health Literate Organization

What is a Health Literate Organization?

The term health literacy is most often defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” Based on a Discussion Paper published by the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM’s) Roundtable on Health Literacy in June 2012, a health literate organization is one that “makes it easier for people to navigate, understand, and use information and services to take care of their health.” A health literate organization, then, is one that has made changes to better match the demands of the organization with the capacity and skills of the people who need its information and services.

Emerging Terminology

At first glance, the term “health literate organization” may be confusing for those not familiar with the ever emerging issues of health literacy, or who are grammatical purists. The phrase “health literate,” either used as a noun or an adjective, has always referred to a person. However, the IOM’s Roundtable on Health Literacy has coined a new use of the term in an effort to convey the need for organizations to address the challenges and barriers their systems present to the patients and families they serve. The new term acknowledges the role of the organization as well as the role of individuals.

Attributes of and Rationale for
a Health Literate Organization

The Roundtable’s Discussion Paper lists 10 attributes of a health literate organization. Included under each of these 10 attributes are steps that an organization can take to “make it easier for people to navigate, understand, and use information and services to take care of their health.”

The document also provides an extensive rationale for why organizations need to promote health literacy at an organizational level. This rationale is helpful for anyone seeking organization-wide support for their efforts to create a better fit between the services that the organization provides and the health literacy knowledge and skills of its patients, clients, members, and consumers.