The Importance of Health Literacy During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Susan Gay, M.A.Ed., MCHES, Program Coordinator, Southern Plains Tribal Health Board




As I watched the novel coronavirus slowly make its way into the first handful of states in the U.S., I began thinking about what I needed to do as Health Ministries director to help prepare our church for this coming tsunami (tidal wave) of a pandemic.


In the midst of sharing some of the emerging information about the disease with church members, directing them where to find credible information, and advising about possible steps that may need to be taken to keep the congregation safe, I listened to the daily news reports.


As I did, I began hearing terms like “epidemic,” “pandemic,” and many more that are specifically associated with the COVID-19 coronavirus. I wondered if persons without training in epidemiology and public health understood all the jargon (technical terms) that was constantly being used by health professionals, government officials, and news reporters.


My training in health literacy made me think that they did not. So, as one who promotes and advocates for health literacy, my health-literate-trained brain kicked into high gear, and I decided to create a document for our church to simplify the common terms that were being used in relation to COVID-19.


After I created the document, the thought came to mind to also share it with my co-workers at Southern Plains Tribal Health Board (SPTHB). Our Creative Services Department created a design for the document and posted it on the SPTHB website and social media platforms. The origin of the document explained, let’s now focus on health literacy, especially in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.


I already have used the term health literacy a few times in this article. So, what is health literacy? The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, Title V defines health literacy as “the degree to which an individual has the capacity to obtain, communicate, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”


An important aspect of health literacy is the use of plain language. Plain language is language that is easy to read, process, understand, and use. Simply put, health information, messaging, and services need to be easy to understand, obtain, and use, as well as be accurate and trustworthy.


When health communication and services are provided taking these factors into consideration, people are in a much better position to make decisions about their health and take action- the ultimate goal of health communication. When health professionals and other influential people share health information in ways that are difficult to understand, they create a health literacy problem.


When people are expected to figure out health information and services that are unfamiliar, confusing, or complex, a health literacy problem is created. In addition, health literacy is situational. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even people who read well and are comfortable using numbers can experience limited health literacy when, among other things, they aren’t familiar with medical terms, when they are told they have a serious illness and are scared or confused, and when they have to figure out statistics and the risks and benefits that affect their health and safety.

In light of these facts, in enters the COVID-19 coronavirus on global and national stages…in enter fear and panic.


People are dealing with a virus that they and health experts haven’t dealt with before; they and their loved ones are becoming infected with the virus; they are hearing new reports about how the disease is rapidly spreading in cities and communities across the country and around the world; images, stories, and statistical information are being seen and reported on the number of people dying daily; they are being hit with new terms like “social distancing,” “presumptive positive,” “essential services”; they’re hearing conflicting information about what they should and shouldn’t do, such as to wear face masks or not to wear face masks (Shakespeare wasn’t kidding when he said, “…that is the question.”); conspiracy theories emerge about the origin and nature of the virus; they are having to work from home and homeschool their children at the same time, or, worse yet, they are swiftly and unexpectedly thrust into unemployment, because their job is not an essential service; their activities and movements are restricted to prevent the spread of this dreaded disease….


Do you see yet why a knowledge of health literacy is so important in such a climate of fear, sudden adjustments to a new way of living, and other unprecedented situations? If you do, and, hopefully, by now you do, then you begin to understand how crucial it is that health information, messaging, and services are clear, simple, and trustworthy. Whose responsibility is it to provide such information, messaging, and services?


Great question! Whereas it is important for everyone to be aware of health literacy, it is critical that health professionals, government officials, organizations, the media, and others, who are at the forefront of providing information and services or communicating with the public, provide health information and services that can be understood and used by everyone.


When we are facing an unprecedented public health crisis, like that of the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s all be mindful of not just what we are sharing or providing but how we are communicating or providing information and services; let’s try to do so in ways that help everyone be able to use the information and services to stay safe.


Remember: We are all in this together- regionally, nationally, and globally.


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