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13th December 2016

Are you health literate?

Underestimating risks, misusing medicines and medical devices – and even struggling to find your way around a hospital – can be bad for your health

Healthy literacy is our ‘ability to engage with health information and services’. People with low levels of health literacy may struggle to understand what their doctor tells them or have difficulty reading information about their medication.

It’s a common problem. In England, four out of ten people of working age (aged 16-65) are unable to understand everyday health information. If numerical skills are required, this rises to six in ten.

Similarly, a study of eight European countries found that roughly one in two people have health literacy problems.

In an era where patients are increasingly involved in managing their own care, this is a big deal.

And it comes with costs. People with lower levels of health literacy are more likely to use emergency services and more likely to be hospitalised when they are sick. They are also less likely to have healthy diets and lifestyles.

All of this leads to worse outcomes for the individuals directly affected and puts pressure on health systems.

Social inequality

Lower levels of literacy – including health literacy – are associated with lower socioeconomic status. This means those living with social disadvantage also face worse health outcomes.

For health, social and economic reasons, this is a problem that must be tackled.

Health literacy was discussed at a World Health Organisation meeting in Paris last week where experts explored common areas for policy action between the health, education and social sectors.

This recent WHO paper on investing in health literacy was presented by its author, Dr David McDaid of the London School of Economics & Political Science. He argues that improving health literacy levels early in life pays off for decades to come.


— David McDaid (@dmcdaid) December 8, 2016

Clearer communication

While investment in education and health communications technologies are essential to improving health literacy in future, there are some basic communication tricks that can help today.

Professor Ellen Peters of Ohio State University says the way medical information is presented can significantly improve understanding. They key, she says, is to reduce the amount of ‘cognitive effort’ required to grasp an idea.

For example, medical risk information can be too complex for some people. But numbers can be made more useable by only including crucial facts – and leaving out the rest.

“Another thing you can do is make medical statistics more emotional for people,” says Peters. “If you’re told you have a 9% risk of a disease, you might not know how good or bad that is. Everybody knows what a ‘9’ is but you can give it more value by saying your risk is above or below average.”

Visualisations work too. If you are told 60% of people face health literacy challenges it might be harder to imagine than ‘six out of every ten people’. Using infographics is another commonly used way to communicate statistical information.

Another tip can be to use clever graphic design tactics to draw readers’ attention to the most important facts. For example, strong colours or larger font sizes can be used to highlight key information – just as advertisers do every day when they want us to absorb a take-home message about a certain product.

All of this helps us to make smarter decisions using the information available. And that would be good for everyone.


In a follow-up article we will look at some more ways to boost health literacy