Health literacy refers to people’s ability to find, understand, assess and use health information and services.
It depends on the skills, experience and circumstances of individuals (individual health literacy) as well as the people and places that deliver health services and information (health literacy environment).
Health literacy is important because everyone has a fundamental right to participate in their own health and wellbeing. Additionally, higher levels of health literacy are associated with better health outcomes, better quality and safety of healthcare and lower health costs.
Around 60% of Australian adults have low health literacy. In the Western NSW PHN region, this figure is likely higher because:
- We have a relatively large Indigenous population.
- Our population is ageing at a higher rate than the national average
- Our communities have relatively high levels of disadvantage and low general literacy levels compared to metropolitan communities.
- We have a relatively high turnover of health professionals and use of locums.
- We have a relatively high number of overseas trained doctors whose first language is not English.
Building Health Literacy
Individual health literacy is determined by a range of social, economic, cultural and health factors. It is also influenced day to day by factors including:
- Language barriers
- Physical barriers – e.g. transport, caring or other commitments, geography
- Poor general literacy
- Poor access to/understanding of/confidence with digital technology
- Stigma attached to different people, services and illnesses or conditions
- Workforce issues
- Poor health
- Anxiety and/or embarrassment.
This means an individual’s health literacy changes. In any given circumstance at any given time, someone may have a high level of health literacy. However, in different circumstances at a different time, their health literacy may be considerably lower.
To overcome the challenges associated with these changes, we need to build a strong health literacy environment. The health literacy environment consists of:
- Places where health care services and information are provided
- People who provide health care services and information
- Information about health, health care and health services.
Health service providers and health professionals (in clinical and non-clinical roles) have a responsibility to ensure that the services and information they provide are accessible to everyone, regardless of their individual health literacy. There are a number of simple strategies to do this.
Strategies for Better Health Literacy
(expand each section below)
Where to Start
(8-page PDF, Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care)
(website, Northern NSW LHD and North Coast PHN)
(website, Tasmanian Council of Social Service)
(information and resources, NSW Clinical Excellence Commission)
(information and resources, Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care)