Jason Gordon

Why does health literacy matter?

What exactly is health literacy? And why’s it so vital for the NHS and its patients? These big questions were answered by Dr Joanne Protheroe at our recent ‘Building Accessible, Inclusive Digital Health & Social Care Services’ seminar, hosted in London by healthcare charity The King’s Fund.

A practising GP in central Manchester, Jo is a senior lecturer at Keele University who also chairs Health Literacy UK. An interest in what would become known as ‘health literacy’ was sparked by Jo’s early research work. Exploring ways to engage with patients led to a realisation that individuals can’t take control in decisions about their own health if they don't have access to easily understandable information.

According to the World Health Organisation...

'Health literacy is defined as ‘the personal characteristics and social resources needed for individuals and communities to access, understand, appraise and use information and services to make decisions about health’.
“A person's health literacy level influences their knowledge and their accurate risk perception” explained Jo. “This has an effect on patients being able to take medications, and to know when and where to seek help – whether it’s phoning 111, going to their GP or straight to A&E, which has a major impact on the use of healthcare services. There’s also reduced uptake of things like voluntary screening in people with low health literacy… and this has a big influence on health outcomes, quality of life and mortality.”

Health literacy affects patients' ability to navigate their way through an increasingly complex care system – whether it’s simply adopting a healthy lifestyle, reading the words on a pill bottle or giving their informed consent for a major operation.

Jo pointed to a frequent mismatch between health systems and the skills of the patients and families they’re meant to serve.  She reported the case of one patient with a chest X-ray appointment at Manchester Royal Infirmary, too embarrassed to ask for help finding the right department that was signed ‘radiology’ and not ‘X-ray’. The result was a missed appointment - with a significant time cost to the NHS and inefficient use of resources, as well as obvious inconvenience to all parties.

Health literacy is a far from isolated problem.

Jo’s own assessment has revealed that health information is too complex for 43% of people aged between 16 and 65 to understand. And if that information includes numbers – like dosage instructions on a bottle of medicine – that rises to over 60% of the population. That’s more than 20 million people of working age who may not be able to understand and use information they need to look after their health. So what can we do about it?

“We can design more interventions: these can be as broad as changing the law, or just changing the way healthcare professionals talk in their one-to-one encounters with patients. And in parallel we need to improve the health literacy of our adult population.”

Jo illustrated the successful results of a ‘teach-back’ initiative in Stoke-on-Trent. Instead of patients being asked “do you understand everything?” at the end of a consultation, clinicians now invite the patient to explain in their own words what’s been discussed. This helps quickly pinpoint any areas of potential misunderstanding.

Other initiatives range from community-based sharing of health information on social networks to broadening young children’s vocabulary through role-playing games like ‘going to the dentist’ and ‘healthy eating’.

“Remember that health literacy isn’t just about printed information” concluded Jo. “We also have to think about interactions between professionals and patients, the built environment… and so much more.”
Stay tuned for more findings from our seminar speakers - and news on other regional healthcare-focused events.

Like what you've read? Find out how Assistive Technology can improve your patient access


Irene Stratton 10/04/2017 14:04:37
Helpful blog post. Next maybe look at health numeracy - we've found it very difficult to explain the magnitude of risk of complications to people with diabetes.




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