Barriers Around Health Literacy and What We Can Do

By Helper Tees


In our previous post, we wrote about what health literacy is and why it’s so crucial - especially in light of the pandemic we find ourselves in! We also talked about how “bottomless mimosas,” doesn’t actually mean you should drink bottomless mimosas. We live and learn, yeah? We’re all doing our best to balance everything life is throwing our direction. Instead of saying things like, “I have to do this,” we replace it with, “I get to do this.” We’re learning. We’re leaning on each other and doing the very best we can. When it comes to discovering ways we can positively impact ourselves and our communities, we’ve seen higher health literacy always stands out.

  • People feel greater ownership over their health
  • They’re more confident collaborating with healthcare professionals
  • These health-conscious values then get passed onto the next generation.

Health literacy is often elusive, due to the complexity of our healthcare system, lack of access to health education, and pervasive language barriers. In this article, we explore how we can potentially circumnavigate these health literacy barriers.

TLDR won’t help you here, these tools can be life-changing so stick around. And while you’re at it, share with a friend that you’ve heard is struggling with some doctor’s appointments. Let’s truly be there for each other this year! If the last year or more has taught me anything, it’s that we have to foster deeper relationships with one another and be a helping hand when we are able.

Looking at barriers in health literacy


Before we think about improvements, we first have to look at some of the existing barriers to health literacy. Current stats indicate that only 12% of English-speaking adults in the US have proficient health literacy skills,1 which leads to a domino effect further complicating care, treatment decision-making, and having general conversations about health.

Rethinking communication strategies

Low health literacy can impact communication between patients, families, and doctors. Often, patients may not feel confident in speaking to their doctors. Even if a patient and a doctor do communicate effectively, patients may still struggle to translate this knowledge to family members. Communication gaps can be especially stressful during time-sensitive decision-making periods. Community health literacy would greatly benefit from different types of sensitivity/communication training for healthcare workers, more accessible information at various reading levels for every demographic, and new forms of technology that create more opportunities for easy communication.

What about cultural differences?

As populations age and become more diverse, cultural sensitivity and acknowledgement of generational differences is vital in improving health literacy. It is crucial that our healthcare providers look at emerging population needs to develop effective communication strategies moving forward.1

While many other barriers are associated with health literacy, communication and cultural differences are currently some of the more pressing issues that we can work toward improving together as a community.

Thinking about the future of health literacy


So how do we improve health literacy? Healthcare is complicated, and we know there are a lot of administrative and bureaucratic processes that might make it more challenging to make a difference. This is where community effort plays a more prominent role. When we work alongside our parents, families, children, and friends to help bridge gaps and make healthcare education accessible, good things can happen. What we’re really saying is that lives can be changed. People can live healthier, more informed, more confident lifestyles. As we talked about in the last article, generational barriers can be broken.

Empowering each other

We must improve how we interact with one another. Everyone should feel engaged and empowered in their knowledge.2 Driving engagement requires providing free, easy-to-understand health information for people in different formats to make it more accessible. For example, the CDC has many great free resources on coronavirus information, such as flyers and handouts that could be distributed amongst the community. This method helps develop people’s capacity to understand and process complicated healthcare information in formats that are easier and more digestible across different demographics.

When we link arms and say, “let’s figure this out together,” nobody is alone. Isolation has played a key role in deteriorating mental health. Through education and teaming up with others, we can all cross the finish line.

Increased cultural sensitivity

Cultural differences can often be a barrier to communication, and in turn, health literacy. Receiving sensitive care from both healthcare workers and our communities will require the following two:1

  • Building better cultural rapport
  • Having a deeper understanding of patients

Balancing the two will not only help the patient-doctor relationship, but ensure no one in the community feels left out from key health education measures and/or updates.2

So how do we build inclusivity?

There are many ways to get creative with communication. For example, the previously-mentioned print resources from the CDC could be translated into different languages and then widely distributed. Another way to build better forms of communication is to make visuals available to those who do not speak English as their first language. The WHO provides key facts and figures on COVID-19 health in visual formats that are easily understood by those who don’t speak English. If these visuals are still difficult to understand, the WHO has provided fact sheets on varying health topics in up to 5 languages. Moreover, Harvard medical students have accomplished the task of translating pandemic resources into dozens of different languages for us.

Image created by Ciela Castro

How do we improve health literacy today?

Having a better understanding of the future of health literacy, it’s time to ask ourselves the important measures we can take to achieve greater individual and community health.

There are a few different ways you can approach this. We’ll explore both micro-level and macro-level tips, tricks, and research that you can start to implement today.


One of the most important tools for improving health literacy is co-creation, or working together. Healthcare research consistently demonstrates the current and long-term benefits of teamwork on population health.5 Community forums are shown to be an effective way to discuss ways of making key health information both easier to understand and more accessible for everyone.

You could also create an arts and crafts session for parents and children to design their own health posters or flyers around self-care, hygiene, and other important health issues (see the above as an example of a poster designed to teach children how to effectively wash their hands). These fliers could then be displayed in key areas that are well-trafficked, such as doctor’s offices, school nurses’ offices, community centers, etc.

To find more resources and inspiration on how to engage in health literacy activities with children across different age groups, check out this link or, this link if you're an educator. Teenagers can also benefit from the following resource on navigating the healthcare system to learn how to take control of their own health as they get older.

Support health literacy initiatives

It’s not always easy to start a health literacy initiative on your own, but if you are passionate about making a change, consider supporting causes that work towards this mission.

There are a lot of companies and charities that are working towards different aspects of health literacy. You can find a list of charities that operate in the health equity landscape here.

You can also shop or donate to companies that are using creative ways to spread crucial health messages, such as Helper Tees.

*If you're already a part of an organization working towards greater health literacy for all, be sure to check out these two action plans:



Talk to your doctor!

This one might seem obvious, but it’s a major aspect of health literacy that many find challenging. If I’m being honest, sometimes just setting up an appointment with a doctor is nerve-racking! Does anyone else want their mom to make all of their appointments still? No. Just me?

Talking to a doctor, particularly when it’s a high-stress situation, can seem like an uphill battle because it might not always be easy to get the answers you want or need. However, as we’ve seen in the research, the better someone is able to communicate with healthcare teams, the more likely it is that they will have better health outcomes for themselves or others. We have to advocate for ourselves when we are able!

There are a lot of great resources available to help you feel more confident when speaking to a doctor, such as the one designed by the National Institute of Health.

Another great way to stay engaged in your health is to research questions to ask your doctor before you speak with them. This is important because sometimes visits feel so rushed that we don’t end up asking our doctors for crucial information, such as medication management, what a healthy lifestyle would look like with your condition, how your family history may affect your diagnosis, etc. Here’s a list of questions doctors wish you’d ask according to the U.S News Health Team. Additionally, here are some general questions teenagers should know to ask their doctors during routine visits. If you have a chronic condition, make sure to identify more specific questions to your health during your next visit.


Overview: Why does health literacy matter? Because a curious patient is a healthy patient. The CDC agrees and has provided further insights into what asking questions can mean for your health: &

At Helper Tees, we exist to empower finding happiness in health while supporting our communities, artists, and the future of health education itself. We’re on a mission to spread necessary messages in whimsical ways. With each product purchased, we donate a 35% of the proceeds to the health or education charity of your choice. Click here to learn more about Helper Tees and how to get involved!


  1. Polster, D. S. (2018). Confronting barriers to improve healthcare literacy and cultural competency in disparate populations. Nursing, 48(12), 28–33.
  2. McKenna, V. B., Sixsmith, J., & Barry, M. (2020). Facilitators and Barriers to the Development of Health Literacy Capacities Over Time for Self-Management. HLRP: Health Literacy Research and Practice, 4(2).
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, February 11). Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).
  4. World Health Organization (WHO). (2021, May 5). Mythbusters.
  5. Loignon, C., Dupéré, S., Fortin, M., Ramsden, V. R., & Truchon, K. (2018). Health literacy – engaging the community in the co-creation of meaningful health navigation services: a study protocol. BMC Health Services Research, 18(1).