Health Literacy is Important for Quality Health Services
Low health literacy is an invisible barrier to healthcare delivery that has profound implications for individuals, health services and health systems[i].
Anyone who needs health information and services needs health literacy skills to:
find information and services,
communicate their needs and preferences,
process the meaning and usefulness of the information and services,
understand the choices available to them and the likely consequences, and
decide which information and services match their needs and preferences so they can act.
Anyone who provides health information and services to others, either in a clinical or support role, also needs health literacy skills to:
help people find information and services,
communicate effectively about health and healthcare,
be able to provide useful information and services, and
decide which information and services work best for different situations and people so they can be supported to act.
Health literacy is fundamental to shared decision making and effective partnerships between consumers and healthcare providers.
Helping consumers to improve their knowledge and ability to act, and reducing the demands placed on consumers by a complex health system, help to make health care more patient-centred and contribute to a safe and high-quality health system.[ii]
Here is a video developed for the British National Health Service that provides a good summary of health literacy and its importance to quality health care.
Health literacy is an interaction between individuals and the environments where they get health information and health care. It is not static. It varies across the lifespan and depends on the circumstances individuals find themselves in. It takes work from all parties, and a range of different approaches, to improve the health literacy of individuals and environments.
Individual health literacy and the health literacy environment affect a person’s willingness and ability to engage with the healthcare system. People with low health literacy:
find it hard to access and understand the health system,
present for treatment later when unwell,
have higher rates of hospitalisation and presentation at Emergency departments,
are more likely to experience adverse outcomes, and
struggle to manage chronic conditions.
Individual health literacy and the health literacy environment also influence the safety and quality of health care. A person’s ability to access, understand and use information about their condition will influence the actions they take and the decisions they make about treatment and management[iii]
Health literacy skills are relative to the context in which people are managing their health. People need higher levels of health literacy – personal knowledge, skills, motivation and confidence when:
health systems are disjointed, bureaucratic, technical, and unfriendly compared to when health systems are well connected and user friendly
they are facing multiple complex health problems compared to when health issues are straightforward
their life is complicated by conflicting priorities, demands and issues compared to when their life is in a period of stability
social networks and pressures create barriers (rather than in situations where they are highly supportive)
the consumer’s cultural and religious beliefs are different to the norms of the people around them
the cultural and religious beliefs of a consumer is different to the understood health and cultural norms of the health system.
Health systems and health professionals play a significant role in supporting health literacy. Health care organisations and professionals benefit when they understand and respond to the health literacy challenges that affect people who use their services. Organisations that do this can deliver more cost effective and high-quality care that matches consumers’ needs and preferences.
Explore how to build health literacy in Canberra and the region with information and resources tailored to your role on the pages in this section of the website.
[i]Magnani JW, Mujahid MS, Aronow HD, et al. Health Literacy and Cardiovascular Disease: Fundamental Relevance to Primary and Secondary Prevention: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2018;138(2):e48-e74. doi:10.1161/CIR.0000000000000579
[ii]Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care. Health literacy: Taking action to improve safety and quality. Sydney: ACSQHC, 2014. Pg 4.
[iii] Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care. Health literacy: Taking action to improve safety and quality. Sydney: ACSQHC, 2014. Pg 13