Health literacy – improving accessibility of accurate health information 

Author(s): Jesslyn Thay , Date: 21 October 2021

October is Health Literacy Awareness month, an opportunity to boost awareness of the millions of people worldwide who have problems reading, understanding and acting upon health information.

Health literacy is more than just how health information is written, it is the confidence to use accurate health information, in turn, that enables people to become active partners in their care, and to navigate health and social care systems.

There are two general types of health literacy, meaning we all have a part to play in creating understandable and accessible health information:

  •            Personal health literacy: The degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.
  •            Organizational health literacy: The degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.

Health information is often over-complicated, with specialist terminology that can be hard for those without the correct training to understand and act upon it. Accurate health information can also be hard to access or locate – especially if those trying to access the health information are displaced or remote.

The advancement of technology has made health information widely accessible, but not necessarily understandable to people in need, often meaning they do not change harmful health behaviours.

Pandemic and infodemic - the impact on those with low health literacy

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the crisis around health literacy, there has been an explosion of health information about covid-19, which while the majority has been accurate, it is hard for individuals to identify misinformation and malicious disinformation – which can cause people to make poor health choices and harmful behaviours.

It is misconception that people with poor health literacy do not seek health information. Often people try to access accurate information but struggle to understand if it is not presented in a format that is suitable for the general public – this was see commonly during the height of the covid-19 pandemic.

The scientific reports and health policies, which were issued quickly in response to the crisis were hard to follow and understand. Therefore, people with poor health literacy tended to be unable to discern between accurate health information, misinformation and disinformation. Unfortunately, disinformation is often presented in a way which is more understandable and that people with poor health literacy find more relatable.

Health literacy is important across the globe

Poor health literacy is not a problem just confined to developing countries. In 2015 Public Health England and the Institute of Health Equity published a report entitled “Improving health literacy to reduce health inequalities”. This showed that up to 61 per cent of the working age population in England finds it difficult to understand health and wellbeing information.

Poor health literacy and life expectancy

Low levels of health literacy are often found in unequal societies and particularly among those who are disadvantaged or displaced or in marginalized societies.

Also, low level health literacy can impact significantly upon a person’s ability to manage long term conditions, engage with preventative programmes and make informed healthy lifestyle choices, and keep to medication regimes – ultimately lowering people’s life expectancy.

Low health literacy is associated with a 75% increased risk of dying earlier than people who have higher literacy levels, overall reading and writing levels influence a person’s health literacy greatly.

Health information in different forms

Health information can be excluding if it is not translated to local languages or pictorial form, those who have poor literacy often relate well to health information presented as educational videos and comic strips.

Health information can be made easily accessible to everyone if it is broadcast on television and radio, as well as accurate health information on social media and through school educational programs.

HealthPhone is an organisation which has created an accessible health information video library, that regardless of a person’s health literacy, has been designed to educate and inform.

HIFA is an organization which campaigns for accessible and accurate health information for all. HIFA provides a space for experts across the world to discuss health information and education, with over 20,000 members actively participating in four language forums. Working closely with the World Health Organization in promoting health literacy as well as discussing health issues and topics, and accessible health education, policy and practice.

On Global health there are over 11,000 records about health literacy or health information: follow this search "health literacy" or "health information".

For more specific results about coronavirus and health literacy use this search string: (coronavir*  or COVID* or "severe acute respiratory syndrome" or "2019-nCoV") AND ("health information" or  "health literacy"))

References:

Health Literacy Month (2021) Building Awareness and Action Ideas https://www.healthliteracymonth.org/action-ideas [accessed 21/10/21]

House of Lords Library (2020) Covid-19: Health literacy and public health information https://lordslibrary.parliament.uk/covid-19-health-literacy-and-public-health-information/ [accessed 21/10/21]

Liu C, Wang D, Liu C, et al  What is the meaning of health literacy? A systematic review and qualitative synthesis Family Medicine and Community Health 2020;8:e000351. doi: 10.1136/fmch-2020-000351 https://fmch.bmj.com/content/8/2/e000351.citation-tools [accessed 21/10/21]

National Literacy Trust (2018) Literacy and life expectancy https://literacytrust.org.uk/research-services/research-reports/literacy-and-life-expectancy/

NHS  (2020) Enabling people to make informed health decisions https://www.england.nhs.uk/ourwork/patient-participation/health-decisions/ [accessed 21/10/21]

ODPHP (2020) October Is Health Literacy Month! https://health.gov/news/202010/october-health-literacy-month [accessed 21/10/21]

Paakkari, Leena et al. (2020) COVID-19: health literacy is an underestimated problem. The Lancet Public Health, Volume 5, Issue 5, e249 - e250 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-26672030086-4/fulltext [accessed 21/10/21]

WHO (2021) Improving health literacy https://www.who.int/activities/improving-health-literacy [accessed 21/10/21]