Health literacy

‘Health literacy’ refers to a person’s ability, skills, and motivation to identify, access, understand and make use of health information.

Research has shown that health literacy is a key determinant of health and that people with low health literacy have poorer health status, have difficulty managing their own health and wellbeing, and tend to have worse health outcomes.   

There is also evidence that addressing health literacy can not only help those with limited health literacy, but will also benefit everyone using a service.  There are a range of actions that can be taken at every level from the consultation room to service design that can help.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is the term used to describe people’s ability to understand, access and use health information and services.  It 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.  When understood in the context of these activities, it is increasingly being viewed as a framework for understanding how competent organisations are at enabling and responding to the needs of the people they serve. 

Why does it matter?

Health literacy is a social determinant of health, linked to poorer self-reported health, worse health outcomes and higher costs.  However, unlike other social determinants such as poverty, unemployment and ethnicity, it is potentially open to change through improving the knowledge and skills of individuals and the wider community and improving health systems, services and professional practice.

Measuring health literacy and health literate organisations

There are a wide range to tools to assess the health literacy of individuals and the level of health literacy within a given population.  More recently, frameworks have been developed to help organisations understand how competently they are responding to the health literacy of their local population.

Responding to health literacy needs

Making organisations more ‘health literate’ can not only help people with limited health literacy, but benefits everyone using a service, in the same way that improved signage within a hospital can help everyone to find their way, not just those who have trouble following directions.  A robust response to health literacy addresses the issue at the level of individuals and communities, health professionals, services and commissioning.

All resources on health literacy