Health Literacy

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is the ability to obtain, communicate, process, and understand information about health. People need these skills to make good decisions about their health.

But nearly nine of every ten adults do not have the basic skills they need to manage their health (From Quick Guide to Health Literacy Fact Sheet: Health Literacy Basics, US Department of Health and Human Services).

We can help!

The Community Education Program helps MaineHealth member organizations improve their patient communication by providing these services free to MaineHealth member organizations:

  • Staff training on patient-centered communication including health literacy, plain language and teach-back.
  • Material review and development, including readability assessments
  • Testing materials for usability with focus groups, individual interviews, and user testing


Why does health literacy matter?

Health literacy has a real impact on health outcomes and the use of health services:

  • Use of preventive services. People with limited health literacy are less likely to use preventive services such as mammograms or colon cancer screening.
  • Knowledge about conditions. They are more likely to have a chronic condition but less likely to know how to manage it.
  • Hospitalization. They are more likely to go to the hospital.
  • Health status. They are more likely to report poor health status.
  • Healthcare costs. They are more likely to use costly health services.

(From Quick Guide to Health Literacy Fact Sheet: Health Literacy and Health Outcomes, US Department of Health and Human Services)

What can you do?

There are many things you can do to help patients understand and use health information. The two most commonly used, evidence-based approaches are to:

  • Use plain language when talking or writing for patients and families.
  • Use teach-back with patients and families to check for understanding.
  • Attend a Health Literacy Training


Tools for Health Literacy

Plain-Language Checklist for Creating and Reviewing Your Materials
Use this quick, 2-page checklist when creating or reviewing materials.

Click here for the PDF version

Guidelines to Effective Print Communication

New to health literacy and plain-language writing? Start with this document!
A Guide to Creating and Evaluating Patient Materials: Guidelines for Effective Print Communication
MaineHealth developed these guidelines to help health professionals communicate clearly and consistently with patients and families.
Download the MaineHealth Guidelines or call 1-866-609-5183 to ask for a copy.

MH Print Guidelines 2011 coverIn this guide, you'll find:

  • Key facts about health literacy
  • Developing patient education materials: a step-by-step approach
  • Checklist to develop and evaluate patient education materials
  • Overview of readability


Plain Language Thesaurus

This document, by the CDC Nation Center for Health Marketing, lists plain language alternatives for hundreds of common medical terms.

Click here for the Plain Language Thesaurus for Health Communications

Health Literacy Tool Kit

This toolkit is designed to help practices take a systematic approach towards reducing confusion around medical care and increase health outcomes through clear communication.

Click here for the Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit

Teach-back Tool Kit

This tool kit helps providers learn how to use the teach-back method with patients to confirm understanding.

Click here for the Teach-back Tool Kit

Physician Experience about Learning Teach-back

Need a Health Literacy Review?

Contact us to find out how we can help your practice with health literacy. Our services are free to MaineHealth member organizations.

Email Ellie

Health literacy class descriptions

Are you interested in learning more about health literacy?  The Community Education Department offers a variety of classes for MaineHealth staff for free. 

Finding reputable health information online

It’s easy to find health information online-but is it the information you want your patients reading? Come learn how to find and share patient education online. From deciphering reputable information from opinion to the best way to share information online with patients, this class will give you the tools to use the internet for patient education. 

Health numeracy and communicating numbers

Math is hard. Even patients who are well educated have a hard time understanding and using numbers to manage their health.  In this workshop we’ll share tips and best practices about how to communicate numbers so patients and caregivers can understand. Participants will explore how large a role numbers play in patient care and learn concrete tips to simplify numbers for patients.

Using teach-back

Teach-back is an evidence-based approach to ensuring that you have communicated information to a patient in a way that they can understand and use. Like other forms of patient-centered communication, it takes skill and practice to do well. This workshop will explore the benefits of using teach back and provide opportunities for honing your teach-back skills. 

Writing patient-centered letters

Whether you're welcoming a new patient, giving instructions, or trying to get a patient to keep appointments, what you say and how you say it matters. This brief, hands-on workshop shares plain language writing techniques that will help improve patient understanding and adherence.

Writing patient education materials

Writing material that patients can easily understand and use to manage their health is not as easy as it sounds! This class shares how to use plain language and design principals to effectively deliver written patient education.  Learn how to develop your message, write content, and adhere to MaineHealth brand standards.   

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