Louise McVicker, Texthelp

Health Literacy & Accessible Digital Health Information: Key Takeaways from the event

We enjoyed a packed agenda delivered by expert speakers, who provided guidance and insight into the challenges many face accessing an increasingly digital health service. With so much information shared there’s a lot to digest, so here are our key takeaways.

A massive thank you to everyone who participated in our Health Literacy & Accessible Digital Health information event in Manchester, held in conjunction with the Patient Information Forum (PIF) .

We enjoyed a packed agenda delivered by expert speakers, who provided guidance and insight into the challenges many face accessing an increasingly digital health service. With so much information shared there’s a lot to digest, so here are our key takeaways.

Jason Gordon’s presentation highlighted the power of digital technology in empowering everyone to equally access NHS services. This message was reinforced by Adi Latif of Ability Net, who provided an entertaining  presentation, underpinned with a serious message, of his struggle as a blind person to engage with the NHS. 

Technology has completely opened up the digital world to the blind community. Digital apps empower Adi to do things which previously wouldn’t have been possible - like navigating on a car journey. Yet receiving a doctor’s letter reinforces Adi’s disability again, as he has to rely on someone to read it to him. He’s calling for greater adoption by the NHS of readily available digital technology - like screen readers - to empower everyone with disabilities to independently take control of their health. 

Abigail Howse, Quality & Evaluation lead at MacMillan Cancer Support, discussed how easy-read documents and British Sign Language resources like videos can meet the accessibility needs of different people. MacMillan Cancer has developed a range of free resources covering many of the most commonly discussed cancer issues. It’s not just those with learning difficulties who can benefit from easy read documents and health videos, says Abi. These resources support everyone to have a greater understanding of health information.

Harjit Bansal is Equality & Diversity Manager at North East London NHS Foundation Trust.  The Trust’s 6500 workforce is a highly diverse group and Harjit discussed the importance of staff networks in ensuring the needs of staff with disabilities and challenges are identified and met. Highlighting the work done by the Trust’s Disability Staff Network and Dyslexia Staff Forums to identify staff challenges and barriers, she covered some easy-win solutions. Digital technology, including Texthelp’s Read&Write literacy software, now plays a crucial role in delivering the support staff need.

Prof Joanne Protheroe is a Professor of General Practice, NHS Clinical Adviser for Health Literacy  and  Chair of Health Literacy UK Group. Drawing on practical examples from Stoke-on-Trent public health, Joanne outlined the challenges that millions of patients face in accessing and understanding relevant information to make informed decisions about their own health. Health literacy is about so much more than just making printed leaflets easier to read, Jo stressed. It touches every aspect of the patient experience, from web sites to hospital signage and the built environment. 

Jo explored the cost of low health literacy on the NHS, estimating that it accounts for 3  to 5% of the total health care cost per annum (Source: 1. Eichler K et al, 2009.) In the UK these costs in 2017-18 equate to £3.7 billion to £6.2 billion (source HLS-EU Consortium, 2012). By taking practical - and often simple - steps to improve health literacy we can empower more people to self-manage their health and in doing so improve patient outcomes - whilst saving the NHS potentially millions.

Jonathan Berry comes from a wide and varied health background. In his current role as NHS England’s Policy Lead on Health Literacy and Shared Decision Making, he highlighted the links between health inequalities and the digital world. Lower levels of health literacy are much more common among the socially and economically disadvantaged, also people with poor education, older people, and those affected by long term health conditions, sensory impairments or disabilities.  

 Jonathan shared some real life examples of poor health literacy - from a patient spraying an asthma inhaler on a her neck rather than down her throat, to a lack of understanding of the links between food and diabetes control. To hammer home the message, his presentation included an interactive audience session to demonstrate how disempowering and esteem-impacting poor literacy can be. 

Jonathan highlighted that help is at hand in the shape of a health literacy toolkit. Developed by Health Education England. It can be adapted for local use to help develop effective approaches to improving health literacy. 

Prof Gill Rowlands, Professor of General Practice at the Institute of Health and Society, continued the literacy theme, outlining the possibilities emerging from advances in digital health to promote greater self-care, promote better health and help prevent illness. She believes the internet presents huge untapped potential for the public to access reliable health information, medical treatments and illness. 

But as Gill went on to highlight,  there are considerable social inequalities when it comes to internet use. The people who have the greatest dependency on the health service also tend to have lower digital skills with little or often no experience of using the internet. Steps are being taken through NHS Digital’s Pathfinder programme to redress this balance and open up the benefits of digital health information to all.

You can catch all the news from the day and join in the conversation on Twitter @TexthelpWork #accessibleinfo.


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