Health Literacy and Social Determinants of Health

Last week, at Mad*Pow’s annual Health Experience Design Conference, someone asked me “what is the correlation between health literacy and social determinants of health?” This was during a workshop on health literacy and plain language.

This isn’t a simple question to answer, so let’s explore it.

Social Determinants of Health

What are social determinants of health? The CDC explains them as “conditions in the places where people live, learn, work, and play [that] affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.”

As detailed by the WHO, the determinants of health include:

  • the social and economic environment,
  • the physical environment, and
  • the person’s individual characteristics and behaviors.

These determinants may include things such as income and social status, employment, special supports, and access to health services.

Is Health Literacy a Social Determinant?

From Geriatric Nursing Volume 38, Issue 4:

“According to research, inadequate Health Literacy more strongly predicts health status than age, income, education, or race.”

Geriatric Nursing Volume 38, Issue 4

Yet I do not consider health literacy a social determinant. My rationale is that social determinants are social, economic, and cultural. Health literacy is affected by social determinants. Thus, when we say that health literacy is a stronger predictor of health status than income, we should acknowledge that income may be a determining factor in health literacy!

What’s more, health literacy is a result of poor communication on the part of providers and healthcare communicators. If our patients have poor health literacy, it is because we are not speaking in an understandable way.

Health literacy should be something that can transcend social determinants. We as communicators should create easily readable, easily understandable information, so that social factors do not determine health literacy.

What Can You Do?

If you are a content strategist, a health literacy advocate, or a healthcare provider, there is a lot you can do.

Together, we can create a more health literate – and thus healthier – world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *