Increasing Health Literacy in Underserved Areas

By Amanda Winstead

Healthcare inequality is a serious problem in contemporary society. Most of us would agree everybody has a right to good quality medical attention. Yet, there are communities among us that, through socioeconomic hardship, systemic racial prejudice, and even geographical infrastructure, are not getting the assistance they need.

This isn’t just in respect of physical diagnosis and treatment services, either. Gaining basic health literacy is a fundamental tool in preventing illness and improving quality of life in the long term. Those living in underserved areas tend to experience limited access to this vital health education alongside poor availability of doctors and hospitals. As such, addressing the health literacy deficit is an important part of bridging medical equality gaps.

Let’s examine some of the ways communities and public health agencies can practically increase health literacy in underserved areas.

Increasing Health Literacy: Doctor with patient
Image Source: Pexels

What is Health Literacy?

Before exploring how to increase health literacy in underserved communities, it’s useful to clarify what we’re discussing. Health literacy refers to the ability of patients to fully understand all aspects of their care in ways that empower them to make more informed decisions. This is usually divided into two main categories; personal and organizational. The former is about how patients directly interact with healthcare services and how able they feel to grasp information or ask relevant questions. The latter is more geared toward whether public health agencies and facilities are making clear information available to the public.

Both of these types of health literacy impact the well-being of underserved communities. From a personal perspective, lack of health literacy takes a significant amount of agency away from patients. When you don’t feel able to communicate effectively with your physician, you can’t effectively advocate for your care. Similarly, when you can’t understand what your medical billing itemization means, this reduces your ability to make sure you’re charged fairly and even interact with your insurers.

In terms of organizational literacy, this tends to come down to reduced resources. Agencies’ inability or neglect of providing literacy materials to communities is a serious inequality issue. Moreover, it exacerbates the hardships these communities are already experiencing and perpetuates cycles of prejudice and poverty.

Prioritize Clarity

So, how do we start to increase health literacy in underserved areas? Perhaps the most basic, yet important step is to prioritize clarity. One of the most significant hurdles to engaging meaningfully with healthcare is the tendency to utilize complex terminology. This can not only be confusing to patients but it can also discourage them from seeking out health information in the future. It can also lead to them thinking they do not have the language or confidence to effectively communicate with healthcare providers.

As such, agencies providing healthcare literature and media need to consider the standards of the communities they serve. This is particularly important for patients in areas of the country or the world where access to quality educational resources is limited. The language used must be simple but not patronizingly so. If patients need to head to a search engine for simpler definitions of terms used in literature, it’s not likely to be effective.

However, clarity shouldn’t just be directed to health educational resources. Every communication with community members needs to confirm they understand what is happening and feel able to ask questions. Many physicians and nurses already make a point of asking whether their advice is clear to patients, but this should be extended to other professionals like outreach coordinators and facility reception workers.

Even administrative documents like medical bills have to clearly display what services have been provided rather than just relying on abbreviations and codes. Where codes are used, this should be accompanied by a glossary or key to explain the meaning in full.

Connect with Schools

The earlier health literacy is introduced, the more effective it can be in improving lives. As such, working with underserved communities to make sure health literacy is a feature in schools is a must. It not only cements empowering attitudes to health at such a formative stage, but it also helps break negative cycles of health illiteracy from being perpetuated.

Unfortunately, for some communities, meaningful engagement with schools can be difficult. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often have reduced access to quality educational resources. Areas where poverty is rife often receive significantly less school funding. These infrastructural and sociological hurdles mean it is often impractical to introduce more health classes into a system that is already under strain.

As such, public health agencies and private health facilities must make efforts to connect with schools in relevant ways. Rather than put additional pressure on teachers and administrators, health professionals must assess what resources the school needs to give their children the best experience of health literacy. This could involve providing guest speakers to run classes. It might be providing additional funding and materials. The needs of the schools must be understood before the most appropriate approach to health literacy can be employed.

Work Alongside Community Leaders

An area too often overlooked when increasing health literacy is local engagement. Understandably, there is a tendency to consider leaders in healthcare and professionals as experts in their fields and therefore the authority on such issues. However, this can lead to efforts being dictated by those with no tangible knowledge of the challenges experienced by those in underserved areas.

It is, therefore, important for public health officials to make concerted efforts to collaborate with relevant community leaders. These figures may be religious, political, or municipal leaders. They could simply be well-respected members of the local town. It isn’t just that these citizens can provide useful data on how best to provide the community with health literacy resources. They have also developed bonds of trust with locals and can help coordinate efforts for outreach.

There should also be a greater deployment of professionals who bridge gaps between the medical profession and marginalized communities. Transcultural nurses can be vital in utilizing their deep understanding of patients’ cultural backgrounds to form solid healthcare connections. These professionals are also skilled in providing the most relevant health literacy practices and resources for the community, rather than applying protocols that may not be suitable. Let’s face it — a big push to offer online health educational protocols is not especially practical when 38% of Black rural Americans don’t have internet access at home.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this to focus on is emphasizing where agency to act lies. Involving communities in improving their own health literacy sends a distinct message. It’s not about forcing unfamiliar ideas or practices. It’s about empowering citizens to lift themselves and their neighbors to a higher quality of life. The community should be leading the way, with health agencies offering support.


Health literacy is an important element of maintaining wellness for us all. Unfortunately, when underserved areas don’t get the literacy resources they need, this serves to widen an already sizable health equality gap. Public health professionals and agencies need to prioritize clarity in materials and work with schools to instill good health literacy practices early on. Most importantly, there must be greater collaboration with communities to understand their health literacy needs and provide the support to address any challenges.

About the Author

Amanda Winstead is a writer focusing on many topics including technology and digital marketing. Along with writing she enjoys traveling, reading, working out, and going to concerts. If you want to follow her writing journey, or even just say hi you can find her on Twitter.