This blog post was originally posted on the Horowitz Center for Health Literacy website on April 26, 2019
Written by Dr. Dushanka Kleinman, Associate Dean for Research and Principal Associate Dean, School of Public Health
Since 1979, the Nation has used the Healthy People framework to identify key issues and targets that will improve and promote health, as well as document successes and challenges to progress. Healthy People is a public-private process that happens every decade so we can reflect on, revise, and set health goals and objectives for the Nation. The objectives provide a roadmap to drive actions. Accurate and timely data and evidence-based programs and policies are additional tools that support public and private contributions and facilitate collective impact.
Health literacy objectives were introduced in third (2010) and fourth decades (2020) of the Healthy People objectives. As stated in Healthy People 2010, “Closing the gap in health literacy is an issue of fundamental fairness and equity and is essential to reduce health disparities.” In early 2020, a new set of national health promotion and disease prevention objectives – Healthy People 2030 – will be released for the decade to come.
To provide the context and rationale for this initiative’s approach, the Healthy People 2030 Framework provides a vision, mission, foundational principles, overarching goals, and a plan of action. The Framework also “communicate(s) the principles that underlie decisions about Healthy People 2030.” Health literacy is included in the Foundational Principles and Overarching Goals of this Framework: attaining health literacy is placed in the midst of achieving health equity and eliminating health disparities.
A health literacy issue brief prepared for the 2030 process makes the case for the critical role health literacy plays in improving population health and reducing health disparities. The brief provides the context for expanding the responsibility for health literacy beyond individuals, to include “organizations and professionals who create and deliver health information and services.” The brief’s authors suggest taking a “system’s approach” and aligning society’s actions for health literacy with the complex factors that affect people’s ability to find, understand, and use health information at all levels: individual, community and society.
From this new perspective, “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.” This alignment is pivotal to eliminating health disparities and achieving health equity.
If we want a realistic chance to realize the Healthy People 2030 vision of “A society in which all people can achieve their full potential for health and well-being across the lifespan,” then we must commit ourselves to concrete steps that improve health literacy and contribute to health equity.
Dr. Dushanka V. Kleinman is the Associate Dean for Research and Professor, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the University of Maryland School of Public Health. She is a senior science leader at the University of Maryland College Park and in these roles works closely with faculty at the School, University and across the University System campuses to contribute to identifying and supporting proposals for emerging research and research training opportunities. Her recent research interests include prevention of oral health disparities, health literacy, and strategies to integrate oral and general health as well as primary care with public health and social services.