Health literacy refers to how people understand information about health and health care, and how they apply that information to their lives, use it to make decisions and act on it.
The Commission separates health literacy into two components1:
- Individual health literacy is the skills, knowledge, motivation and capacity of a person to gain access to, understand, appraise and apply information to make effective decisions about health and health care, and take appropriate action
- Health literacy environment is the infrastructure, policies, processes, materials, people and relationships that make up the healthcare system and affect the way that people gain access to, understand, appraise and apply health-related information and services.
Health literacy plays an important role in facilitating communication and enabling effective partnerships with consumers. For partnerships to work, everyone involved needs to be able to give, receive, interpret and act on information such as treatment options and plans.
Health literacy is important for:
- Consumers, because it affects their capacity to make informed decisions and take action to manage their health
- Clinicians, because it affects the way they manage their communication and partnerships with consumers and deliver care
- Managers and policymakers, because the complexity of their systems can affect consumers’ ability to navigate health services and systems, collaborate with organisations and engage with their own care.
Health literacy is a complex and challenging area for health service organisations. Only about 40% of adults have the level of individual health literacy required to meet the demands of everyday life. This means, for example, that only 40% of adults can understand and follow health messages in the way in which they are usually presented.2
Consumers’ individual health literacy may be affected by:
- Age – people aged 15–19 years and those over 45 years have been shown to have lower rates of health literacy
- Education – higher levels of education are associated with high rates of adequate or better individual health literacy
- Disability – people living with disability may be at risk of low individual health literacy for functional reasons, such as poor vision or cognitive impairment
- Culture and language – these factors can affect the way people make meaning out of their experiences, which can have a direct impact on their expectations and understanding of health issues; in addition, difficulty with the English language has been associated with lower rates of individual health literacy
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status – national data on the individual health literacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are limited; however, factors such as lower school-based literacy and socioeconomic disadvantage across education, employment and income may place Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at risk of lower individual health literacy.
Health service organisations can play an important role in addressing health literacy. Organisations have a responsibility to build a health literacy environment that supports effective partnerships with consumers. This may involve1, 3:
- Developing and implementing health literacy policies and processes that aim to reduce the health literacy demands associated with information materials, the physical environment and local care pathways
- Providing and supporting access to training for clinicians in health literacy and interpersonal communication, including training in communicating risk
- Providing education programs for consumers to develop health knowledge and skills
- Reducing unnecessary complexity for consumers in using and navigating the health service.
- Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care. National statement on health literacy. Sydney: ACSQHC; 2014.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian social trends. Canberra: ABS; 2009. (ABS Cat. No. 4102.0.)
- Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care. Health literacy: taking action to improve safety and quality. Sydney: ACSQHC; 2014.