National Minority Health Month: Better Health Through Better Understanding

Posted on by Michelle Hutchinson, DMD, MPH, CPH

When I was in dental school, my classmates and I learned to practice dentistry in a big clinic arranged in cubicles. A shared countertop separated back-to-back cubicles. Above the counter hung a set of cabinets. This afforded some privacy with our patients but not much.

During one of our early days in the clinic, after looking at a patient’s x-rays, I said to her, “You have a large carious lesion on tooth number 30. It needs an M.O.D. amalgam.”

The patient responded, “Huh?”

The classmate with whom I shared a counter stuck his head in the space below the cabinets and said, “Ma’am, you have a big cavity in a lower right back tooth. You need a big filling.”

The patient responded with “Thank you” and a smile of understanding.

That was my first lesson in health literacy. I didn’t know the term health literacy at the time, but I learned that I needed to communicate with my patients in language that they could understand.

What Is Health Literacy?

Three women, one with a mobile device, one with a laptop computer, and one with a folder of papers, discuss information displayed on the mobile device
Health-literate organizations make their information and services easy for all audiences to find, understand and use.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines personal health literacy as the degree to which individuals can find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others. HHS defines organizational health literacy as the degree to which organizations equitably enable people to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

In Healthy People 2030, HHS indicates that limited personal health literacy is a social risk, one associated with worse health care and health outcomes. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, people with limited health literacy are more likely to identify themselves as members of racial or ethnic minority groups. CDC has indicated that these populations are disproportionately affected by systemic and structural factors.

HHS also says that “organizational health literacy is a social determinant of health. Living in communities served by health care organizations that lack organizational health literacy can affect the quality of health care delivered and, consequently, health outcomes. People…[living near] organizations with limited health literacy may be more likely to suffer from miscommunication and have difficulty accessing services.”

Health Literacy Promotes Health Equity

Health literacy promotes health equity by making life-saving health information accessible to all populations. Healthcare systems, public health organizations, and the people they employ have a responsibility to make their information easy for all their audiences to find, understand, and use.

Organizational health literacy best practices include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Use plain language. Use words familiar to your audience. Avoid jargon and technical terms. If you must use a technical term, define it the first time you use it. Also keep in mind that the same word can mean different things to different people. For example, to a public health professional, transmission might mean the spread of disease, but to the lay public, it might mean a part of a car. Say “spread of disease” instead of “disease transmission.”
  • Use participatory design and message testing. You’re more likely to achieve greater acceptance of your health communication materials when you include members of your intended audience in the design and development and testing of your messages.
  • Collaborate with faith-based and community organizations that serve your intended audience. Their staff can help you recruit people for participatory design and message testing. Their staff can also serve as trusted messengers of your information.

What CDC Is Doing

In 2021, CDC declared racism a serious public health threat. CDC launched its Racism and Health portal to serve as a hub for its activities, promote a public discourse on how racism negatively affects health, and communicate potential solutions. Subsequently, the agency established an internal initiative, CORE, to integrate health equity into the fabric of our work.

CDC recognizes the cross-cutting functions of health equity and health literacy. To better communicate with populations with low health literacy, CDC is creating and testing information-development tools, conducting workforce training in plain language and clear communication, and developing collaboration processes where the agency’s scientists and health communicators work together from the beginning of product development.

Health Literacy and Health Equity Resources

You may find the following resources helpful when developing health information for racial and ethnic minority communities or audiences with low health literacy:

Tell us how you use health literacy to advance health equity during National Minority Health Month and every day.

Posted on by Michelle Hutchinson, DMD, MPH, CPHTags , , ,

2 comments on “National Minority Health Month: Better Health Through Better Understanding”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Very nice post. As health professionals, we sometimes forget to speak plain language if we spend most of our time with other health professionals rather than with people who receive our services. Jargon and technical language are common parlance for us. Thank you for bringing us back to our obligation and responsibility to advance health literacy.

    Using everyday language that is easy to understand makes healthcare less scary and more accessible. This is important for everybody, including minority and English as a second language populations.
    Our country has poor health literacy. We need to do a better job teaching people about health and how to communicate with their healthcare providers. Using plain language helps remove some of the fear people experience when talking about their health.
    Thanks for the focus on health literacy.

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Page last reviewed: April 18, 2023
Page last updated: April 18, 2023