Health literacy

There is evidence that up to 50% of what people hear in a consultation is forgotten and up to 50% of what is remembered is misinterpreted.  Providing services that are competent in meeting people’s health literacy needs is key to providing care that is personalised and enabling.  

Health literacy is about people having enough knowledge, understanding, skills and confidence to navigate health and social care services, access and use health information and be active partners in their care.

Health literacy involves more than you think…

Although it is often thought of as relating only to reading, health literacy includes understanding and analysing information; decoding instructions, symbols, charts, and diagrams; weighing risks and benefits; and, ultimately, making decisions and taking action.  The level of health literacy that a person needs varies according to the complexity of the information they have to understand, the decisions they have to make, and the health-related tasks they have to undertake.  The more complex a person’s health – for example managing multiple long term conditions – the greater the skills and abilities they need. 

Whose problem is it?

In her blog for National Voices ‘Health literacy: the thinking has moved on, but can services?’ Julie Fenner draws on the World Health Organisation’s new definition of health literacy to argue that health literacy is not about addressing a deficit in individuals, but about the resources available to support people and how competent organisations are at meeting their needs.

Simple changes in a consultation can benefit everyone

Research has shown that health care professionals often underestimate the challenges associated with health literacy, but simple changes can help everyone, not just those with low health literacy.  Approaches like limiting the information you give people to 3 to 5 key points and using the ‘teach-back’ technique to check their understanding can really help.

Health literate organisations are the aspiration

Health literacy affects people’s ability to access the services they need, navigate the healthcare system, share personal information, such as their health history, engage in decision-making and manage their own health.  Health literate organisations make it easier for people to navigate, understand and use information and services to take care of their health.

Recommended resources

Health literacy: let’s think again

In this blog, Graham Kramer, GP and National Clinical Lead for Self Management and Health Literacy for the Scottish Government argues that we should stop trying to solve low health literacy by locating the problem with the patient.  Instead, he argues, it is for us to make healthcare simpler and more engaging so that it matches people’s abilities.

Making it easy: a health literacy action plan for Scotland

Although developed for Scotland, this will be useful to others as it provides a really helpful insight into the impacts of low health literacy.  It locates the task of dealing with the ‘problem’ of health literacy, not just with those who have difficulty understanding and using services, but with the people delivering them to routinely ensure that people understand and have been understood.

Health literacy universal precautions toolkit

Aimed at primary care practices, but transferable to other health settings, this toolkit is intended to provide evidence-based guidance to support organisations to address health literacy.  It can help services to reduce the complexity of health care, increase patient understanding of health information, and enhance support for patients of all literacy levels.

The Health Literacy Place

This website is the main source of health literacy information and resources for Scotland.  It contains a wide range of information and resources on health literacy applicable to health professionals and services across the UK.