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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 Student Leaders

This page is intended to be a resource containing suggestions for what you can do to increase NYU 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. Visit the NYU Student Health Center website to learn more about specific Student Health Center services, hours of operation, and how students can make an appointment.

Encourage friends/club members to engage in appropriate prevention and self-care measures. Check out for suggestions, tips, advice, and activities to help you and your peers be healthy.

Refer students to credible sources of health information. Encourage them to be critical consumers and to trust only reliable and accurate sources of information such as: The Student Health Center’s Health Promotion Office, a health care provider, the Student Health Center website,,, or Mayo Clinic.

Host an event or activity that provides health education. The Health Promotion Office sponsors educational opportunities such as tablings for students facilitated by student leaders on a full range of topics addressed by the Health Promotion Office.

Encourage your groups and organizations to attend the NYU Wellness Expo to learn about Student Health Center, NYU, and community health and wellness resources.

health literacy indicators

a) Provision of health education by NYU Student Health Center during patient visits

  • Data Source: Customer Satisfaction Survey #20
  • Survey Question: I received information during my visit that I will use to improve my health
  • Definition:

b) Students who incurred unexpected charges after receiving medical or mental services

  • Data Source: ACHA – custom question
  • Survey Question: True or False: In the last 12 months, when I received medical or mental health services (whether at the NYU Student Health Center or elsewhere), the charges I incurred were always what I expected.
  • Definition: of those who received services, proportion who responded “false” (does not includes N/A in denominator)

c)  Confused by online health information

  •  Data Source: ACHA – custom question
  • Survey Question: At any point in your last search for health information online did you feel any of the following things? (Select ALL that apply)
  • Definition: proportion who endorsed “Confused by the information you found online”

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  2.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2010). National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. Retrieved 7/15/2011, from:
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