The contemporary healthcare system can help improve health literacy outcomes in two ways: first, by nurturing the skills and motivations needed for patients to be actively engaged in their own health and healthcare decisions; and, second, by creating a prepared and proactive healthcare system that adapts to patients' capacities and needs in efficacious ways. In 2001, the National Cancer Institute launched the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS) as a way for researchers and planners to understand how the public is interacting with a rapidly changing health information environment. Original iterations of the HINTS national probability sampling strategies took place on a biennial basis, but in subsequent years the protocol moved to a yearly administration. This yields a rich resource of cross-sectional, national surveillance data to evaluate for trends across and within vulnerable populations. Sixteen studies are presented from the published literature to illustrate how HINTS data were used to explore constructs of direct interest to health literacy researchers. Suggestions are given for how this ongoing public surveillance mechanism can be used: (a) to provide a sentinel view of how the public is interacting with information in the environment to address their health needs; (b) to generate research questions and hypotheses for further exploration using complementary methodologies; and (c) to explore the diffusion of new health communication channels within and between segments of the national population.
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