Critical health literacy: a review and critical analysis

Todd Vandenbark

Health literacy logoIn a recent article published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, author Deborah Chinn (2011) notes that while there is increasing interest in the topic of health literacy,

“there has also been criticism that this concept has been poorly defined, that it stretches the idea of “literacy” to an indefensible extent and more specifically, that it adds little to the existing concerns and intervention approaches of the better established discipline of health promotion.”

She goes on to select one definition of health literacy (Nutbeam, 2000) and using the concept of “critical health literacy” to determine its usefulness in improving the health of communities and individuals. This article concludes that the concept of critical health literacy connects ideas across multiple domains, yet retains “a key focus on the interaction between individuals and information about health” and how information can be used to improve health outcomes.

While much of the research around the topic of health literacy has be quantitative in measure, qualitative research is also needed to address the “socially situated nature of health literacy, involving interpersonal relationships, emotional involvement, and issues of power and resistance” (Chinn, 2011). Knowing how people utilize their personal networks to assemble an understanding of their health situation has the potential to increase the effectiveness of health literacy outreach efforts.

But we cannot stop there. It is also important to know what individuals and organizations benefit from poor health literacy, and what roadblocks and hurdles – legal, political, and more – are being put or kept in place to maintain the status quo.

What questions do you think researchers should be asking about critical health literacy? Where should academic institutions, libraries, non-profit organizations and others be focusing their resources to address this timely issue? Tell us about it!


Chinn, D. (2011). Critical health literacy: a review and critical analysis. Soc Sci Med, 73(1), 60-67. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.04.004

Nutbeam, D. (2000). Health literacy as a public health goal: a challenge for contemporary health education and communication strategies into the 21st century. [Article]. Health Promotion International, 15(3), 259.