Ten Attributes of Health Literate Health Care Organizations

AHRQ Tools and Resources

Health literate healthcare organizations make it easier for people to navigate, understand, and use information and services to take care of their health. This page displays the many AHRQ resources that can assist healthcare systems address health literacy and each of 10 attributes of health literate healthcare organizations.

To achieve good health outcomes, people need understandable health information and easy access to health services. The complexity of the health system, however, confuses even those with adequate health literacy, and endangers those with limited health literacy – over one-third of U.S. adults. Healthcare organizations increasingly recognize that delivering safe, patient-centered care requires addressing health literacy. A paper published by members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Roundtable on Health Literacy identifies 10 attributes of health literate organizations. You can access the full paper "Ten Attributes of Health Literate Health Care Organizations."

The Ten Attributes

A health literate healthcare organization:

  1. Has leadership that makes health literacy integral to its mission, structure, and operations.
  2. Integrates health literacy into planning, evaluation measures, patient safety, and quality improvement.
  3. Prepares the workforce to be health literate and monitors progress.
  4. Includes populations served in the design, implementation, and evaluation of health information and services.
  5. Meets the needs of populations with a range of health literacy skills while avoiding stigmatization.
  6. Uses health literacy strategies in interpersonal communications and confirms understanding at all points of contact.
  7. Provides easy access to health information and services and navigation assistance.
  8. Designs and distributes print, audiovisual, and social media content that is easy to understand and act on.
  9. Addresses health literacy in high-risk situations, including care transitions and communications about medicines.
  10. Communicates clearly what health plans cover and what individuals will have to pay for services.

1.  Has leadership that makes health literacy integral to its mission, structure, and operations

Being a health literate organization is more than initiating a few projects that address health literacy; it means that health literacy is an organizational value. Health literacy leaders: make it clear that effective communication is a priority across all levels of the organization; cultivate health literacy champions throughout the organization; and set goals for health literacy improvement, provide incentives to achieve those goals, and establish accountability for outcomes at every level of the organization.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #1 include:

2. Integrates health literacy into planning, evaluation measures, patient safety, and quality improvement

Health literate healthcare organizations ensure that health literacy is fully integrated into all of their activities, and that health literacy informs both strategic and operational planning. Appropriate measures to evaluate specific health literacy initiatives are developed and used. In addition, measurement of overall organizational performance assesses success with vulnerable populations such as those with limited health literacy.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #2 include:

3. Prepares the workforce to be health literate and monitors progress

Health literate healthcare organizations recognize that everyone, not just clinicians, needs health literacy training – from front and back office staff (e.g., receptionists, billing clerks) to leadership. Health literate organizations set and meet goals for initial and ongoing formal and informal health literacy training for all staff and members of governing bodies.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #3 include:

4. Includes populations served in the design, implementation, and evaluation of health information and services

Health literate organizations include members of the populations they serve, especially those with limited health literacy, on governing boards, advisory groups, and design teams. This increases the chances that materials, programs, and services will meet the needs of patients and families.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #4 include:

5.  Meets the needs of populations with a range of health literacy skills while avoiding stigmatization.

Health literate organizations simplify all communication to the greatest extent possible and verify comprehension with everyone, because they do not make assumptions about who understands or needs extra assistance. They also “go the extra mile” for individuals who have the greatest difficulty with understanding or navigation.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #5 include:

6. Uses health literacy strategies in interpersonal communications and confirms understanding at all points of contact.

Effective spoken communication between patient and families and healthcare professionals and staff is a cornerstone of health literacy. Health literate healthcare organizations create an environment that promotes and supports the adoption of evidence-based communication strategies, including strategies to be culturally and linguistically competent.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #6 include:

7. Provides easy access to health information and services and navigation assistance.

Health literate healthcare organizations make it easy to find and understand health information, find the way to and around facilities, and move among healthcare and community providers.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #7 include:

8. Designs and distributes print, audiovisual, and social media content that is easy to understand and act on.

Health literate healthcare organizations establish a process to ensure that all information they distribute – not just educational materials – is clear and effective for their diverse audience, both in terms of health literacy and language.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #8 include:

9. Addresses health literacy in high-risk situations, including care transitions and communications about medicines.

High-risk decisions, situations, and transitions demand more attention to health literacy. Health literate healthcare organizations identify which situations merit heightened safeguards and have standards and processes in place to ensure there is no miscommunication.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #9 include:

10. Communicates clearly what health plans cover and what individuals will have to pay for services.

Before making healthcare decisions, consumers need information about their out-of-pocket costs. Health literate healthcare organizations inform consumers about the costs of care in advance, and refer people to programs that can help make care affordable.

AHRQ resources that can help health systems with Attribute #10 include:

Page last reviewed August 2019
Page originally created June 2019
Internet Citation: Ten Attributes of Health Literate Health Care Organizations. Content last reviewed August 2019. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. https://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/quality-patient-safety/quality-resources/tools/literacy/ten-attributes.html
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