In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Health Literacy

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Background
  • Policy Developments

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Public Health Health Literacy
Rima Rudd, Lindsay Schubiner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 February 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 February 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0033


Health literacy represents a new field of inquiry at the intersection of individuals’ literacy skills and health system demands with attention to health outcomes. Two strands of research contribute to the field of health literacy. The first has been primarily focused on assessments of health materials and the second on differential health outcomes among those who read well and those who do not. These two strands of research have become more interwoven in current research, supporting the importance of examining literacy within context. As a result, new initiatives bring attention to demands and expectations of multiple health contexts within which people make health decisions, take healthful action, and seek information and care. Attention is being paid to literacy-related barriers to access and care, to the communication exchange with attention to the skills of professionals as well as of the lay public, and to a range of literacy skills that include reading and writing, speaking and listening, and numeracy. This bibliography identifies sources pertaining to definition of terms, to key reports and texts reflecting the history and an overview of the field, sources related to measurement, sample studies and findings from the two core strands of research, and examples of new developments in health literacy research and implementation studies.


Five books are frequently listed on publicly shared syllabi. Two texts offer a broader focus on conceptual issues, background studies, research findings, and policy implications. The first, Nielsen-Bohlman, et al. 2004, is the text version of the report developed by the Institute of Medicine Committee on Health Literacy. It offers a comprehensive overview of the field as of 2004 and provides a rigorous delineation of policy implications and recommendations. The second, Zarcadoolas, et al. 2006 focuses on health literacy as a public health and policy issue. Additionally, Schwartzberg, et al. 2005 provides an anthology assembled and published by the American Medical Association, geared toward public health and medical school use. Doak, et al. 1996 and Osborne 2005 both provide handbooks geared toward practitioners with an emphasis on shaping health information for the public. Doak, et al. 1996 is an out-of-print classic that focuses on communication with people who have limited literacy skills, while Osborne 2005 offers a set of strategies for addressing literacy issues.

  • Doak, Cecilia Conrath, Leonard G. Doak, and Jane H. Root. 1996. Teaching patients with low literacy skills .2d ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott.

    This classic text provides an overview of literacy, discussions of theory and teaching, and suggestions for testing skills and assessing and developing materials. The Suitability of Materials tool moves beyond readability measures for a more in-depth examination of factors that ease or inhibit reading and for rigorous formative research processes. Out of print but available online.

  • Nielsen-Bohlman, Lynn, Allison M. Panzer, and David A. Kindig, eds. 2004. Health literacy: A prescription to end confusion. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    This text offers a comprehensive look at what was, in 2002, a nascent field of inquiry. It offers an analysis of health literacy and of associated measures, identifies obstacles to creating a health literate public, assesses interventions to increase health literacy, and delineates needed action for research and policy.

  • Osborne, Helen. 2005. Health literacy from A to Z: Practical ways to communicate your health message. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

    This handbook provides a practical guide to the field. It offers an overview of health literacy with plain language approaches to health communication, as well ideas and strategies for a wide variety of health practitioners.

  • Schwartzberg, Joanne G, Jonathan B. VanGeest, Claire C. Wang, Julie Gazmararian, Ruth Parker, Rima E. Rudd, Debra Roter, and Dean Schillinger, eds. 2005. Understanding health literacy: Implications for medicine and public health. Chicago: American Medical Association.

    This anthology is composed of chapters edited and written by many of the early contributors to the field of health literacy and is proposed as a text for use in schools of medicine and public health. Sections focus attention on health care, the patient perspective, communication, and health-care delivery.

  • Zarcadoolas, Christina, Andrew Pleasant, and David S. Greer. 2006. Advancing health literacy: A framework for understanding and action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    The focus is on public health literacy—broadening the common association of health literacy with health-care services. Discussions of public health and scientific communications address issues of importance to community wellbeing. The case studies related to environmental health offer rich opportunities for in-depth analyses of health communication issues.

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