What is health literacy?

Individual health literacy is how well someone can:

  • find or access health information or health services
  • understand information about health and how health services work
  • work out which information and services are relevant for their own situation
  • make the best health decisions for themselves and do what they need to do to improve or maintain their health.

The health literacy environment is how well the health service and its staff:

  • communicate with consumers
  • organise their services so they are easy to navigate
  • integrate care across services. 
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The Health Literacy helps us to:

Health literacy is needed for even the simplest health tasks.

Can you think of the knowledge and skills that are required just to take one medication safely?

Let’s take an example journey through our health system. What health literacy barriers are there along the way?

Health literacy is influenced by

The health literacy environment
Current health status and health experience
Social networks
Socio-economic factors

Health literacy is also determined by personal skills and the context in which those skills are applied. A person may have a high level of health literacy in one situation, and a low level in another. Health literacy can be considered a state, not a trait; our health literacy can be affected day to day by stress or feeling unwell.

While anyone can have a low level of health literacy, certain groups are more likely to have low health literacy, including:

  • Older people
  • Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander populations
  • People from Culturally and Linguistically
  • Diverse backgrounds
  • People of low socio-economic status
  • People who completed lower levels of schooling and education.

2018 National Health Literacy Survey

This survey provides insight into how Australians feel they score in the nine domains of the Health Literacy Questionnaire. The results show where we can most improve health services, and which populations have the lowest health literacy. It highlights that health literacy is an important equity issue, with the most disadvantaged faring the worst.

NSW Health Literacy Framework

This framework released by the Clinical Excellence Commission in 2019 features four priorities for action by health organisations. These aim for system level change in the way we deliver health care, to improve safety and quality.

These are:

  1. Patients, families and carers are active partners in their health care
  2. Staff communicate with patients, families and carers in ways they understand
  3. Health facilities and centres are easy to access and navigate
  4. Our health systems are built to be sustainable and reliable for every patient, every time

It includes recommendations for health leaders and health staff to implement to improve health literacy. Look closely and you’ll see examples of the Northern NSW Health Literacy Project leading the way!

Sydney Health Literacy Lab and Health Literacy Hub

The Health Literacy Hub hosts resources about health literacy and a community of practice for health professionals.

Visit the Hub here: https://healthliteracyhub.org.au/

The Health Literacy Lab is a health literacy research group based at the University of Sydney, who develop and test interventions and solutions to improve health literacy.

Visit the Lab and see current research here: https://sydneyhealthliteracylab.org.au/

Tasmanian health literacy website

Developed by the Tasmanian Department of Health, this website includes detailed information about health literacy, resources and tools and examples of Tasmanian health literacy initiatives.

Canberra health literacy website

A website developed by the Health Care Consumers’ Assocation about health literacy. It is “a central point for health literacy information, training and resources for the ACT.”

Consumer Enablement Guide

Health Literacy is featured as one of the 11 ways to support consumer enablement in the Agency for Clinical Innovation’s Consumer Enablement Guide.

The site also features some great resources and tools to help you support people to better manage their own health.

  • A. Aaby, K. Friis, B. Christensen, G. Rowlands and H. T. Maindal, “Health literacy is associated with health behaviour and self-reported health: A large population-based study in individuals with cardiovascular disease,” European journal of preventive cardiology, vol. 24, no. 17, pp. 1880-1888, 2017.
  • Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, “National statement on health literacy: taking action to improve safety and quality,” 2014.
  • Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, Tip Sheet 8: Health Literacy and the NSQHS Standards, 2014.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare;, “Health Literacy,” 2022. Visit aihw.gov.au . (Accessed 2022)
  • X. Chen, J. L. Hay, E. A. Waters, M. T. Kiviniemi, C. Biddle, E. Schofield, Y. Li, K. Kaphingst and H. Orom, “Health Literacy and Use and Trust in Health Information, Journal of Health Communication,” Journal of Health Communication, vol. 23, no. 8, pp. 724-734, 2018.
  • Clinical Excellence Commission, “SAER Data – System Factors in Clinical Incidents,” NSW Government, 2021. Visit cec.health.nsw.gov.au (Accessed 2022).
  • S. Hill, “Report of the Victorian 2014 Consultation on Health Literacy,” Centre for Health Communication and Participation, La Trobe University, Melbourne, 2014.
  • U. W. Jayasinghe, M. F. Harris, S. M. Parker, J. Litt, M. van Driel, D. Mazza, C. Del Mar, J. Lloyd, J. Smith, N. Zwar, R. Taylor and P. E. i. P. (. P. Group, “The impact of health literacy and life style risk factors on health-related quality of life of Australian patients,” Health and Quality of Life Outcomes, vol. 14, no. 68, 2016.
  • C. Stormacq, J. Wosinski, E. Boillat and S. Van den Broucke, “Effects of health literacy interventions on health-related outcomes in socioeconomically disadvantaged adults living in the community: a systematic review,” JBI Evidence Synthesis, vol. 18, no. 7, pp. 1389-1469, 2020.
  • U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, “Health Literacy,” 2007.  Visit hrsa.gov (Accessed 2016).
  • B. B. Visscher, B. Steunenberg, M. Heijmans, J. M. Hofstede, W. Deville, I. van der Heide and J. Rademakers, “Evidence on the effectiveness of health literacy interventions in the EU: a systematic review,” BMC Public Health, vol. 18, 2018.
JargonPlain Language
Pre-opBefore surgery
ECGElectrical picture of your heart
PRNWhen needed
SupineOn back
Discharge planningMaking a plan to get out of hospital
FastDo not eat during this time
SatsOxygen in blood
PathologySomething is not working right
Verbal comprehensionUnderstanding what other people are saying
FebrileHigh temperature
GaitWalking pattern
BilateralBoth sides
AbstainDon’t do
UF goalHow much fluid we want to take off
Primary health assessmentHealth check with GP
ProphylacticTo prevent
QID4 times a day
PivotChanging from an old strategy
AF(atrial fibrillation) Heart flutter/irregular heart rate
Nil by mouthNothing to eat or drink
Upper limbsArms
DyspnoeaShortness of breath
AnalgesiaPain relief

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