Most Americans struggle to understand health information and navigate the health care system, which can lead to preventable hospitalizations, greater use of emergency care, and reduced overall health status. To avoid costly “crisis care,” both health professionals and organizations must consider Americans’ health literacy skills—that is, their capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.

A Web First article released yesterday by Health Affairs focuses on the health literacy dimensions of three major federal initiatives from 2010: the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy, and the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The article is by Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); Donald Berwick, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS); Carolyn Clancy, director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ); and coauthors Cynthia Bauer, Cindy Brach, Linda Harris, and Eileen Zerhusen.

The HHS National Action Plan has seven goals, all focusing on simplifying and making written materials easier to understand; improving providers’ communication skills; and improving patients’ self-management skills. A 2005 Mayo Clinic study found that patients with limited health literacy report being confused by medical terminology and not having received clear explanations from their health professionals. As part of this initiative and to alleviate this problem, HHS has created free online resources for providers that address health literacy, cultural competence, and limited English proficiency.

“Limited health literacy represents a barrier to public health’s quality aims,” say the Health Affairs authors. “The successful implementation of the types of health literacy system adaptations noted in this article can help break the cycle of crisis care and move health literacy from the margins to the mainstream of health care practices.”

Baur is senior adviser for health literacy, Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brach is a senior health policy researcher at AHRQ. Harris is a senior health communication and e-health adviser to the deputy assistant secretary for health, disease prevention, and health promotion at HHS. Zerhusen is a health insurance specialist in CMS’ Office of Communications. For an interview with Brach and Harris and additional health literacy resources, read this post on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s NewPublicHealth Blog.