Dr Paul Zollinger-Read explains what health literacy is, why it’s so important and why it desperately needs a heavier focus.
To be able to lead a long, healthy life, you need to choose to live a healthy lifestyle. And to know how to live a healthy lifestyle requires an understanding of health information, a knowledge of how and when to seek medical attention, and what you can do to prevent illness. This ability to obtain, process and understand health information in order to make informed decisions about your health is known as health literacy, something we should all have, but a good percentage of people struggle with.
The ideas you generate about health, whether consciously or subconsciously, and how to stay healthy are shaped by information that you interact with every day, whether it be advice from your doctor, websites, a brochure or leaflet, or on the TV. Health literacy is not just simply about your ability to read – it also requires listening, analytical and decision-making skills, and the ability to apply these skills to your health. To list a few examples, it includes your ability to understand instructions on prescription medicine, health information brochures you’re given, your doctor's advice and directions, and your ability to understand healthcare systems.
The impact of poor health literacy Health literacy has become a key area of research in recent years and we now have a good understanding of the relationship between levels of literacy and health status. For example, research from the US has shown that people with low levels of health literacy have less understanding about their health, and consequently, poorer health and higher mortality than those with good health literacy. Further, data from many developed nations have shown a relationship between low health literacy levels and a decline in the use of available health information and services.
In Australia, research has shown that levels of health literacy are seriously lacking – a staggering 59 percent of the Australian population aged between 15 and 74 did not achieve a health literacy skill level of three or above (out of five) – this is the minimum level needed for people to effectively engage with the health system and manage their own healthcare. And the UK isn’t far behind – the Skills for Life Survey showed that 46 percent of participants (equivalent to 17.8 million people in England) scored a literacy level below that required to achieve their full potential.