Health Literacy

Health literacy is “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions”.1 It informs or limits an individual’s ability to search for and use health information, adopt healthy behaviors, follow prescribed treatment plans, and act on important public health alerts. Limited health literacy is associated with worse health outcomes and higher costs2 and in the collegiate population can also lead to impaired student success. Health literacy is not only about individuals’ skills; in the United States, health literacy reflects the efforts of health systems and professionals to make health information and services understandable and actionable. Interventions across multiple sectors need to focus on improving individual skills and making health service, education, and information systems more health literate.2

Key Facts

  • Nearly 9 of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in our healthcare facilities, retail outlets, media, and communities.1,3,4
  • The average annual healthcare costs of those with low health literacy levels are 4 times greater than that of the general population.5,6,7
  • Poor health literacy costs the U.S. healthcare system $30-$73 billion annually.5,6
  • 90 million Americans lack the skills needed to understand and act on health information.9
  • Individuals with low health literacy are less likely to participate actively in healthcare decision making and more likely to struggle with health management tasks and to face significant challenges navigating the health system. 9
  • Approximately 9 of 10 U.S. adults (88%) cannot calculate an employee's share of health insurance costs using a table based on income and family size.3
  • Health literacy is a better predictor of one’s health status than: age, income, employment, ethnicity, or education level.10,11
  • In 2006, 3 million Americans reported being seriously harmed or knowing someone who has been seriously harmed by following health advice or information found online.1

Suggestions for Parents & Families

This page is intended to be a resource containing suggestions for what you can do to increase your students’ capacity to make appropriate healthcare decisions.

Be knowledgeable about NYU’s health and wellness services for students and able to refer them to the appropriate resources when necessary.The Student Health Center is comprised of a comprehensive set of medical, counseling, and ancillary services. These include but are not limited to the NYU Wellness Exchange with 24/7 crisis response, Physical Therapy, Radiology, Allergy and Travel Medicine, Psychiatry, Specialty Services, Optometry, Pharmacy Services, Health Promotion, and the Moses Center for Students with Disabilities. Whether enrolled in an NYU-sponsored Student Health Insurance plan or maintaining alternate health insurance coverage, the Student Health Center offers routine and walk-in Primary Care and Women's Health Services at either no cost or very reduced cost to all matriculated NYU students. In addition, Wellness, Short-term Counseling (talk therapy) and Crisis services are free of charge. Learn more about specific Student Health Center services, hours of operation, and how students can make an appointment at the NYU Student Health Center website.

Provide your student with a copy of his or her health history. Be sure to include a list of completed vaccinations, allergies, current medications, family history and risk factors, and any other important health information.

Review insurance information with your student. Regardless of which insurance plan your student has, please ensure that your student has an insurance card and other relevant insurance information. Review the co-pay policy together. In planning for your student’s overall health and wellness, be sure his or her insurance plan provides for mental health as well as general health benefits in New York City that meets the University's criteria.

Empower your student to be prepared for and ask questions during visits with a health care provider. Encourage your student to inquire about a diagnosis, treatment plan, and any prescribed medications.  For resources to help your student prepare for a visit with a health or mental health care provider, visit the National Patient Safety Foundation’s Checklist for Getting the Right Diagnosis.

Refer your student to credible sources of health information. Health information is critically important for empowering individuals to be active participants in personal health actions and decisions.39 The Internet is the primary source of information for the majority of NYU students,40-42 yet students can and do obtain health information from a variety of sources including healthcare professionals, magazines, brochures, family, friends, news/media, and peers, among other sources.41 Students often lack the skills to locate and evaluate effectively the information for credibility and quality, analyze the risks and benefits, and use high quality health information; therefore, they can suffer adverse consequences from using unreliable information.39,43,44 Remind students to be skeptical of online health sources and encourage them to only use credible sources such as: The Student Health Center’s Health Promotion Office, a health care provider, the NYU Student Health Center website, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),, Medline Plus, or Mayo Clinic.

health literacy indicators