, Volume 26, Issue 7, pp 705-711
Date: 19 Feb 2011

The Meaning of Numbers in Health: Exploring Health Numeracy in a Mexican-American Population

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Health numeracy can be defined as the ability to use numeric information in the context of health. The interpretation and application of numbers in health may vary across cultural groups.


To explore the construct of health numeracy among persons who identify as Mexican American.


Qualitative focus group study. Groups were stratified by preferred language and level of education. Audio-recordings were transcribed and Spanish groups (n = 3) translated to English. An analysis was conducted using principles of grounded theory.


A purposeful sample of participants from clinical and community sites in the Milwaukee and Chicago metropolitan areas.


A theoretical framework of health numeracy was developed based upon categories and major themes that emerged from the analysis.


Six focus groups were conducted with 50 participants. Initial agreement in coding was 59–67% with 100% reached after reconciliation by the coding team. Three major themes emerged: 1) numeracy skills are applied to a broad range of communication and decision making tasks in health, 2) affective and cognitive responses to numeric information influence use of numbers in the health setting, and 3) there exists a strong desire to understand the meaning behind numbers used in health. The findings informed a theoretical framework of health numeracy.


Numbers are important across a range of skills and applications in health in a sample of an urban Mexican-American population. This study expands previous work that strives to understand the application of numeric skills to medical decision making and health behaviors.