Why Literacy Matters: How Information, Science and Health Literacy Impact Individuals and Public Health

Why Literacy Matters: How Information, Science and Health Literacy Impact Individuals and Public Health

Jamie M. Gray, MLS, MS
Director, Distributed eLibrary
Associate Librarian
Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar


Our understandings of the information and scientific ecosystems intersect when we consider how we find, evaluate, and apply evidence to make health-related choices. Being literate means having a requisite skillset to interpret and participate in the world around us mainly through our abilities to listen, speak, read, and write (National Literacy Trust, n.d.). How well we develop these abilities as well as other basic literacies such as numeracy, visual, and civic literacy can impact how we take in and interpret knowledge that exists in other domains. Literacies such as science and health literacy, which exist within particular social contexts, can be impacted by how well these other functional literacies are formed (Committee on Science Literacy, 2016).

Development of information, science and health literacy can all be influenced by a variety of personal and structural factors. Social determinants such as socioeconomic status have been shown to impact all three of these specific literacies (Taylor et al., 2017; Jun, 2021; Committee on Science Literacy, 2016). Access to technology and how we use it can contribute to the digital divide (Howell & Brossard, 2021), which in turn can have consequences such as who can access telemedicine appointments (Alkureishi et al., 2021) or online health resources (Shiferaw et al., 2021).

In addition, education and policy can support or hinder the development of these skilled literacies at a population level. Science and information literacy are particularly important in guiding individuals and the community in finding and using reliable, high-quality evidence to inform our health decision-making. Howell and Brossard (2021) note that digital, cognitive, and civic literacy are the central underpinnings of becoming scientifically literate. They allow us to understand the scientific process and how our societies can shape what is researched, how research is communicated, used and evaluated, as well as how our personal biases can shape how we interact with scientific evidence (Howell & Brossard, 2021).

The costs of poor literacy can have very real economic consequences. It is estimated that the influence of COVID-19 misinformation/disinformation on voluntary non-vaccination was as much as $50-300 million dollars per day after the vaccine rollout in May 2021 (Bruns et al., 2021), providing a striking real-world example of how these literacies intersect. Low health literacy has been estimated to cost around $1.9 billion dollars per annum in visits to the emergency department as well as $21.2 billion in office visits alone (Rasu et al., 2015). These figures do not capture the additional social (e.g., quality of life) and economic costs (e.g., lost earnings) which may stem from poor health behaviors.

So, what can we do?

  • Encourage holistic national policies that support the development of foundational and domain literacies, like health, nationwide.
  • Adapt both K-12 and clinical curricula to incorporate more emphasis on building functional and domain literacies and extend working partnerships with local cultural institutions like museums and libraries to reinforce it.
  • Take time to discuss patient understanding and information-seeking habits during routine clinical encounters. This can help address any misconceptions and guide patients to reliable sources.



  1. Alkureishi, M. A., Choo, Z. Y., Rahman, A., Ho, K., Benning-Shorb, J., Lenti, G., Velázquez Sánchez, I., Zhu, M., Shah, S. D., & Lee, W. W. (2021). Digitally disconnected: Qualitative study of patient perspectives on the digital divide and potential solutions. JMIR Human Factors, 8(4), e33364. https://doi.org/10.2196/33364
  2. Bruns, R., Hosangadi, D., Trotochaud, M., & Kirk Sell, T. (2021, October 20). Covid-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation costs. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. https://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/publications/covid-19-vaccine-misinformation-and-disinformation-costs-an-estimated-50-to-300-million-each-da
  3. Committee on Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science; Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Snow, C. E., Dibner, K. A. (Eds.). (2016). Science literacy: Concepts, contexts, and consequences. National Academies Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK396088/
  4. Howell, E. L., & Brossard, D. (2021). (Mis)informed about what? What it means to be a science-literate citizen in a digital world. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America118(15), e1912436117. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1912436117
  5. Jun, (2021). A study on cause analysis of digital divide among older people in Korea. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health18(16), 8586. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18168586
  6. National Literacy Trust. (n.d.). What is literacy? National Literacy Trust. https://literacytrust.org.uk/information/what-is-literacy/