Health literacy allows us to find, understand, assess and use health information and services.
Higher levels of health literacy lead to better use of health services, better health outcomes, better quality and safety of healthcare and lower health costs.
Health literacy 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).
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)
Adopt Health Literacy Universal Precautions
There is not always time to properly assess an individual’s health literacy, and with so many factors to consider, it is not practical to try to do so. Instead, assume that everyone may have difficulty understanding or accessing your information or service, and tailor your delivery accordingly. This approach is known as health literacy universal precautions.
Use Plain Language
Jargon, medical and other technical terms can be a useful shorthand among professionals, but their meaning is not always understood by the wider community. It is better to use shorter, simpler terms that are more easily understood. Tools such as the Just Plain Clear glossary can help you express complex health terms and ideas more plainly.
The Australian Government style manual has useful advice for more general use of plain language.
Teach-back is a tool for checking understanding. Rather than treat a lack of understanding as a consumer deficit, this approach places the responsibility for clear explanation on the health professional. Listening, use of simple language and open-ended questions are among the techniques this tool uses.
More detail and resources are available on the Teach-back website.
The best way to determine if your information, form or service is going to be useful to and useable by the people who have to use it is to ask them! Better yet, involve them in the design, development and testing to ensure that the key information or purpose is clear and understandable.
You may find helpful advice in our Consumer & Community Engagement Framework.
Where to Start
Become Familiar with the Basics
This free online health literacy course, developed by Victorian Primary Care Partnerships, provides a great introduction to health literacy. In addition to the introduction module, which provides a sound overview of key health literacy principles, there are modules covering leadership, communication, navigation of virtual and physical environments, and partnering with consumers.
Health Literacy Checklists
These checklists will help you assess how well you are building a better health literacy environment and identify areas that you may need to work on. They can also be used as guides for developing information and services that respond to health literacy needs.
(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)
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