Original Research

Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 298-304

First online:

The Influence of Community and Individual Health Literacy on Self-Reported Health Status

  • Tetine SentellAffiliated withOffice of Public Health Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa Email author 
  • , Wei ZhangAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
  • , James DavisAffiliated withBiostatistics Core, John A. Burns School of Medicine, University of Hawai‘i
  • , Kathleen Kromer BakerAffiliated withHawai’i Department of Health, Office of Health Status Monitoring
  • , Kathryn L. BraunAffiliated withOffice of Public Health Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa‘Imi Hale Native Hawaiian Cancer Network

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Individual health literacy is an established predictor of individual health outcomes. Community-level health literacy may also impact individual health, yet limited research has simultaneously considered the influence of individual and community health literacy on individual health.


The study goal was to determine if community health literacy had an independent relationship with individual self-reported health beyond individual health literacy.


We used data from the 2008 and 2010 Hawai‘i Health Survey, a representative statewide telephone survey. Multilevel models predicted individual self-reported health by both individual and community health literacy, controlling for relevant individual-level (education, race/ethnicity, gender, poverty, insurance status, age, and marital status) and community-level variables (community poverty and community education).


The sample included 11,779 individuals within 37 communities.


Individual health literacy was defined by validated self-reported measurement. Communities were defined by zip code combinations. Community health literacy was defined as the percentage of individuals within a community reporting low health literacy. Census data by ZIP Code Tabulation Areas provided community-level variables.


In descriptive results, 18.2 % self-reported low health literacy, and 14.7 % reported self-reported poor health. Community-level low health literacy ranged from 5.37 % to 35.99 %. In final, multilevel models, both individual (OR: 2.00; 95 % CI: 1.63–2.44) and community low health literacy (OR: 1.02; 95 % CI: 1.00–1.03) were significantly positively associated with self-reported poor health status. Each percentage increase of average low health literacy within a community was associated with an approximately 2 % increase in poor self-reported health for individuals in that community. Also associated with poorer health were lower educational attainment, older age, poverty, and non-White race.


Both individual and community health literacy are significant, distinct correlates of individual general health status. Primary care providers and facilities should consider and address health literacy at both community and individual levels.


health literacy health status socioeconomic factors disparities community health