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What Is Health Literacy- A Guide To A Healthier Life

health literacy

Understanding health information is confusing.

Even with advanced literacy skills and a quality education, it’s easy to get lost in the jargon.

Health literacy needs to get better.

Jonathan Berry, Personalisation and Control Specialist with the NHS England, can attest to this. He knew of a patient who thought her ‘positive’ cancer diagnosis was a good thing. She couldn’t understand why she was getting sicker.

He tells of a lady who thought her chemotherapy wouldn’t work because the IV line was on the opposite side of her body from where her cancer was.

There are stories like this worldwide despite major medical advancements and improved medical outcomes.

In this article we examine health literacy—what it is, why we need it, and how we can build it.

What Is Health Literacy- A Guide To A Healthier Life

What Is Health Literacy

Health literacy is the ability to find, interpret, process, and understand the health information and services they need to make solid health choices.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defined it as:

“The personal characteristics and social resources needed for individuals and communities to access, understand, appraise and use information and services to make decisions about health.”

Improving health literacy is a community responsibility.

healthy lifestyle

It falls to our health services and healthcare providers—to ensure they give clear information in plain language, and to check that their patients understand them.

It falls to our educators—to ensure they are providing basic numeracy and literacy skills.

And it falls to us as individuals and families—to ensure we have the confidence and clarity to ask questions and communicate our concerns.

Health literacy is about empowering people to take responsibility for their health. It implies that we can find the services and information we need, understand medical outcomes, and follow our care instructions.

Why Is It Important

At some point, we all need to find, interpret, process, and understand the health information and services we need to make solid health choices.

We need to be able to take care of ourselves.

There are many health literacy examples we see every day. If you get a cold, do you know how to visit a clinic, collect your prescription, and accurately follow the instructions on your medication? Some people do not. A U.K. based study showed that up to 61% of working age adults do not understand the health information provided to them.

So when the process becomes more complicated—when you are seeing a lot of healthcare providers or your treatment is multi-faceted, patients in need of care can fall through the cracks.

Even people who are comfortable with numeracy and literacy can get lost when:

  • They are diagnosed with a serious illness that they don’t understand
  • They feel scared or confused about their diagnosis
  • They are dealing with ongoing health conditions
  • They aren’t familiar with the medical terms being used
  • They aren’t familiar with their anatomy or bodily functions

Getting lost in the healthcare system is proven to lead to negative health incomes. A comprehensive 2011 study has shown that low health literacy is associated with higher overall mortality rates.

Ways To Practice Health Literacy

Implementing strategies to practice better health literacy can dramatically improve our health outcomes. By taking steps to improve health literacy from all sides—as individuals, healthcare providers, and educators—we can increase our quality of life.

how to start a healthy lifestyle

How healthcare providers can boost health literacy

  • Using plain language to communicate with patients.
  • Seeking confirmation of understanding. Checking with patients that they understand the information given to them, and explaining further if necessary.
  • Using open-ended questions. “What” or “how” gives patients an opportunity to communicate what they know.
  • Using visual demonstrations where possible.
  • Explaining dosages and medications, including where they can find written information on their medications.

How schools can boost health literacy

  • Ensuring students have basic numeracy skills. Measuring medications, understanding nutrition labels, and monitoring your own cholesterol and insulin levels all require basic numeric competency.
  • Ensuring students have basic literacy and comprehension skills. Following prescription labels, understanding communication from your healthcare providers, and navigating online information to find support services all require basic literacy skills.

Examples of Health Literacy to Try Everyday

Improving your health literacy is something you can do on your own, every day. Small improvements now will build a more confident, clear approach in being your own advocate.

Some ways to expand your health literacy:

  • Tell the truth. None of us want to own up to bad health habits, but our healthcare provider needs to know the truth about our lifestyle. It’s tempting to lie about how much we exercise, how regularly we floss, or how often we drink, but these lies don’t serve you.
  • Ask questions. If you don’t understand (or don’t get) an answer, ask more. There are many questions you might want to consider when facing a serious medical issue, and you can build this list before meeting with your doctor.
  • The same goes for less serious issues, because we fear being judged for our lack of education around a subject. Diet is one of the most misunderstood and confusing topics in healthcare, but many fail to discuss it with their doctor. If we don’t understand how to start a healthy lifestyle, we can’t take measures to do it.
  • Learn how to communicate well. If you often feel rushed when you meet with your doctor, learn how to mirror what they tell you. Mirroring allows you to absorb information and shows that you have interpreted it correctly. When someone speaks to you, practice saying, “what I’m hearing is…” and offering a summary of what you understood. Your doctor can then confirm, or correct, what you’ve understood.
  • Learn the names and doses of your medications. Write a list (if you need to) and read what you can find about them. It’s important that you can clearly list the medicines you take—including supplements, vitamins, and herbal remedies—so your doctor can spot potential issues.
  • Stay up to date with your medical history. Your doctor will have your medical records, but as we move from city to city, some records may be incomplete. Or you could need emergency treatment before these records can be passed on. Be sure you know about surgeries, procedures, and ongoing health conditions, so that you can communicate these things quickly.
  • Become more comfortable asking for what you want. This makes us more likely to communicate our needs to our doctors or caregivers. Studies have shown that feeling uncomfortable with their doctor is a key reason patients fail to follow up with their care plans.

what is health literacy


Healthcare can be complicated and technical. At a time when we might be stressed or scared because of our health, it becomes even more difficult to understand. That is why preparation is so important.

Practicing better communication and education are the best ways to improve our health literacy and become better advocates for our own health.

Reading and numbers skills can help us to find and understand health services. But only by learning to communicate with our healthcare providers, and talking openly about our concerns and questions, can we really improve our health outcomes.