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The Health Literacy Gap

Cover of 2013 WHO Health Literacy ReportThis post was written by CH alum, Amy Behrens. 

A 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) report on health literacy [PDF] highlights the “health decision-making paradox:” People are increasingly challenged to manage their personal and family’s health, but are not being prepared or supported in addressing these tasks. The WHO notes that education systems too often fail to provide people with adequate skills to access, understand, assess, and use information to improve their health. This paradox has resulted in a health literacy crisis in the United States, Europe, and beyond.

A recent survey, The Survey of Adult Skills, confirms this — and casts more doubt on the U.S. adult population’s literacy, math, and technology skills. The survey was administered to thousands of people ages 16 to 65 in 23 countries. In all three fields, the U.S. was extremely weak, especially in basic math and technology.

The U.S. is no stranger to losing ground in education rankings. Countries like Finland and Japan consistently outperform the U.S. in global comparisons. The growing fear is that Americans won’t be competitive in an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy. This is a valid fear. But there are other causes for concern in the recent survey findings — namely those related to a global health literacy crisis.

According to an article in the Times, the real issue may not be the rankings, but the fact that the U.S. was among one of the most polarized countries in terms of high and low achievement. We see a similar social gradient (as the WHO refers to it) with health literacy. People with limited health literacy most often have lower levels of education, are older adults, are migrants, and depend on various forms of public assistance.

In reference to the Survey of Adult Skills data, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, said, “These findings should concern us all.” He’s right.


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