Can you read a nutrition label?

It’s a serious question. Did you know the single strongest predictor of an individual’s health status is literacy skills? It’s no doubt that health literacy affects positive outcomes for patients. Low health literacy causes poorer health knowledge, higher mortality, and increased hospital use, emergency visits and health care costs. In fact, one-third of all adults have problems understanding even basic information; such as how to care for themselves after leaving the hospital or how to read a medication label. With that said, it’s absolutely our duty as health care professionals to create communications to help patients understand and act upon the health information they receive. It’s also just as important for our doctors to communicate information in a way that patients can comprehend, determine what they understand, and refer them to additional resources that help them learn more about their conditions.

Steve Sparks, health literacy director of Health Literacy Wisconsin, was a breakout presenter at WHPRMS Annual Conference in October. His presentation focused on the real problem of low health literacy in America and how we can provide easy steps to improve health literacy in our community.

Steve had the group take a quick verbal literacy test called, The Newest Vital Sign, a health literacy assessment tool. It is a simple and fast way to identify people who are most at risk of low health literacy. The tool, which tests literacy skills for both numbers and words, has been validated against a previously validated measure of health literacy (the TOFHLA), and has been shown to take approximately three minutes to take.



  1. If you eat the entire container, how many calories will you eat?
  2. If you are allowed to eat 60 grams of carbohydrates as a snack, how much ice cream could you have?
  3. Your doctor advises you to reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet. You usually have 42 g of saturated fat each day, which includes one serving of ice cream. If you stop eating ice cream, how many grams of saturated fat would you be consuming each day?
  4. If you usually eat 2,500 calories in a day, what percentage of your daily value of calories will you be eating if you eat one serving?
  5. Pretend that you are allergic to the following substances: penicillin, peanuts, latex gloves, and bee stings. Is it safe for you to eat this ice cream?
  6. Why not?

For the answers, CLICK HERE.

Steve also offered tips for us as communicators to help simplify health information in education materials, commercials, ads and other complex medical information.

  • Practice simple plain language. Twenty percent of American adults read at or below a fifth grade level. Most health care material is written above a tenth grade level. Example: If you’re trying to communicate that doing something prevents osteoporosis, say instead “keeps bones strong.”
  • Avoid jargon.
  • Show pictures to support the message.
  • Limit the amount of information provided .
  • Use simple words and sentences.
  • Use an active voice.
  • Use concrete language.
  • Use numbers. But do the math for them, keep the denominator the same and use comparisons/analogies.
  • Design materials for clarity. Use white space, bulleted lists, left justification and easy-to-read typeface fonts.

This post was written and researched by Trish (Skram) Reed, WHPRMS content specialist. If you have blog ideas, comments or suggestions, contact her HERE.


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