Why health literacy matters

In the run up to Health Literacy Month in October, we sat down with our friends from the Patient Information Forum (PIF) to examine why it’s important to shine a light on the area of health literacy.

health literacy, a dual approach to bridging the digital divide

What is health literacy?

The World Health Organization defines health literacy 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.” Whilst most people have reasonable literacy skills, when you add medical terminology to information even the most intelligent people can struggle to understand the message being conveyed. In this sense, people can have good general literacy, but poor health literacy, impacting their ability to make the right decisions to deliver better health outcomes.

If we think of this in a non-health context, many of us consider ourselves reasonably intelligent adults, yet we go to pieces when confronted with pension investment information. We may have good general literacy but poor financial literacy - which can have a detrimental impact on our retirement savings and investment plans for the future.

This same principle applies to health literacy. How many of us visit a doctor and come out not fully understanding what we’ve been told - or unable to repeat it back to a family member? Seemingly complex health terminology can result in us misunderstanding what’s wrong with us and what we need to do to get better - including taking prescription medicines correctly. 

Why is good health literacy so important for the UK?

Poor health literacy is a bigger issue than one may think, affecting many in the UK, especially older people and those with disabilities and long term health conditions. Lower socio-economic groups, and those with English language challenges, are also affected. All these groups are also the biggest users of NHS services each year, accounting for more than 70% of all NHS spend per annum.

So if we don’t understand the health information being given to us, how much money is being wasted each year in ineffectual treatments and wasted medicines? 

More and more we are encouraged to play an active role in managing and protecting our health. If we are to do so, we need to be able to understand the health information being given to us. 

Poor health literacy affects a patient’s ability to: 

  • Discuss health information/medical concerns with healthcare providers
  • Engage in self-care and disease management
  • Navigate their way through the healthcare system
  • Act on medical-related information
  • Adopt and maintain a healthy lifestyle

Inaccessible information

Inaccessible health information online is also a challenge, especially as we move towards a fully digital NHS.  Standards are in place specifically in England to tackle this, but other parts of the UK are lagging behind. In the age of digital health services, there is an enormous risk of leaving some of the population behind - including the older population and those with literacy and language challenges.

We know that funding is a constant challenge for the NHS. But investment in health literacy initiatives can ultimately save money and efficiencies in the long run, whilst ensuring a wider audience can access the health information they need. If patients are better equipped to self-manage their health it means that they’re more likely to become and stay healthy - including following treatment plans and taking medicine correctly - then we as a nation will have much better health outcomes.

Looking to the future

In order to fully transform the digital NHS landscape, and particularly the digital NHS landscape, more support needs to be available to those who struggle most with health literacy - as stats show that it will be these people that will rely heavily on NHS services. We can’t risk leaving anyone behind. This may be a fine balancing act between creating services that suit those who would like to interact with the NHS like a bank - as opposed to those unable to access services online at all. 

But there is plenty of technology out there to help make a difference. It can transform processes, speed up referrals, and connect all health departments to streamline services. The NHS has already transitioned itself in the past 70 years to maintain its status as one of the most crucial institutions of our time, and we’re still on that journey to ensure that it remains that one support that we all rely on. 

During health literacy month, we’ll be teaming up with leading experts from the health sector to bring you a webinar focussed on a dual approach to bridging the digital divide in health literacy. Find out more and register here