Research in Brief: What are Health Literacy, Health Education, and Health Promotion?

NARIC’s Research In Focus series highlights new and interesting findings from NIDILRR-funded studies, presented in lay language summaries. The series covers a wide array of topics, and aims to present peer-reviewed research in readable formats, so our readers can learn about issues that affect them every day. The Research in Brief companion series breaks down some of the concepts readers might come across when exploring research in disability and rehabilitation. This issue introduces the concepts of health literacy, health education, and health promotion.

When researching about health and wellness online, you may come across these terms relating to programs or services offered in your community. In this post, we’ll define these terms and explain their importance.

What is health literacy?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) a person’s health literacy is the degree to which they are able to find, understand, and use information and services to make health related decisions and take action to benefit the health of themselves and others.

Why is health literacy important?

Think about the last doctor’s appointment you had, or the last time you quickly searched online to answer a health question you had. Being able to access and understand accurate health information in a manner that allows you to make appropriate decisions is vital in taking care of your health. Health literacy can help you prevent health problems, maintain good health habits, and deal with any health issues promptly. Low health literacy can lead to people not feeling comfortable seeing a physician or being unable to understand what they are told in the hospital.

What is health education?

According to the World Health Organization, health education consists of learning opportunities that improve health literacy, improving knowledge and developing the skills needed to improve individual and community health. It consists of individual, group, institutional, and community-based strategies to improve health knowledge

Why is health education important?

Health education provides people with the tools they need to live healthier. It can start as early as infancy, with health educators teaching new parents to place their infants back to sleep to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Another example of health education is parents teaching their children to brush twice a day for oral health, or teachers showing students how to use tissues and hand sanitizer in class. Health education can continue through adulthood and into senior years, such as educating pregnant people about healthy pregnancies or holding falls prevention classes for older adults.

What is health promotion?

According to WHO, health promotion is the process of enabling people to take control in improving their health. It encompasses health education on an individual and community level as well as the implementation of government policies and interventions that support improved health.

Why is health promotion important?

The current coronavirus pandemic provides an excellent example of the importance of health promotion. In the early days of the pandemic, health organizations rallied around the message of social distancing and practicing safety measures such as wearing a mask and using sanitizer. Health promotion aims to strengthen people’s ability to practice good health through policies, such as vaccination campaigns, and nutritional programs such as free healthy lunches for school children.

Health education and health promotion interventions can improve health literacy rates in a community and help people make better choices and live healthier lives. 

NARIC’s Research In Focus series has featured several studies in health literacy, health education, and health promotion to support the health, function, and independence of people with disabilities and their families.

We invite you to explore more Research In Focus selections at our website:

Hafsa Abdirahman, MPH, is a public health scientist and freelance medical writer and editor. She believes that access to evidence-based, quality health information can save lives and she’s worked throughout her career to put this belief into practice.

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