The LGBT Health & Development Program

What is Health Literacy?

Posted on December 28th, 2012 by Beatriz in Featured, Research Blog. No Comments

Health literacy is a commonly overlooked but very important aspect of the relationship between patients and healthcare providers. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act [1] defines health literacy as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.” As such, health literacy for individuals is more than being able to understand medical jargon or interpret symptoms, but rather an element that is entrenched in the entire decision-making process of obtaining healthcare.

What is the relationship between health literacy and health outcomes?

People with low health literacy have a higher risk of developing preventable chronic mental and/or physical health conditions [2].

Why is Health Literacy important to the LGBT community?

Health literacy is most crucial for individuals of minority groups, including sexual minority groups, who have culturally-specific needs that may not be addressed in “standard” clinical training. To document the health needs of Chicago’s LGBT youth across mental, physical, and sexual health domains, the IMPACT Program recently created a White Paper report,  “A Healthy Chicago for LGBT Youth.”  The researchers found that when compared to heterosexual youth:

●LGBT youth were more likely to report depression and depressive symptoms, previous suicide attempts, and non-suicidal self-injury, when compared to heterosexually-identified youth.

●LGBT youth were more likely to be underweight and to report vomiting to lose weight.

●LGBT youth were more likely to report sex risk behaviors, and in female-born youth, were more likely to report pregnancy [3].

Given the distinct health needs and concerns of the LGBT community, improving communication between the patient/client and the health care provider is an important first step to ensure culturally competent care.   Without a competent health care provider, it can be difficult for LGBT individuals to feel that they’re in a safe environment where they can disclose information about their sexual history. (Please see a recent IMPACT Program blog posting about youth disclosure of sexual orientation to health care providers.)

The CDC recommends the following tips for health providers working with LGBT patients/clients [4]:

●Be aware of specific LGBT health issues and needs.  Providers should be able to talk to their patients/clients about a broad range of health and social issues that impact their overall well-being.

●Ensure that patients/clients fully understand the health information given to them.  Providers should be able to discuss and assess a patient’s/client’s understanding and knowledge about their health. Patients/clients are more likely to make informed decisions that impact their health if they demonstrate health literacy skills.

●Provide referrals and comprehensive resource lists.  Providers should ensure their patients/clients have sufficient information about other health and social services in the community.  In addition, when making referrals to other agencies, providers should be aware of the outside agency’s competency with regards to LGBTQ health issues.

Health literacy is important because people who have high literacy have a lower risk of developing preventable mental and/or physical health conditions.  Improving the communication between patients and providers may be a key variable in reducing LGBT health disparities.


*This post was co-written with IMPACT Program intern, Jeanie Chung.


  1. H.R. 3590–111th Congress. Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Database of federal legislation. Accessed December 16, 2012.
  2. National Prevention Council, National Prevention Strategy, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, 2011.
  3. Mustanski, B.S., Clifford, A., Bigelow, L., Andrews, K., Birkett, M.A., Ashbeck, A., & Fisher, K. (2012) A Healthy Chicago for LGBT Youth: An IMPACT Program White Paper on Health Disparities in Chicago’s LGBT Youth. Chicago, IL: The IMPACT Program at Northwestern University. Retrieved from
  4. CDC index page. Health Literacy Web site. Page last updated: April 11, 2011.  Accessed December 14, 2012.

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