Frequently Asked Questions

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Why is health literacy important?

Health literacy is important because the more we can understand about our health and health care, the healthier we can be. Improving our health literacy is one of the cheapest, easiest, and most effective ways of improving our health.

As a population, we have greater levels of chronic disease and rising numbers of people experiencing mental health episodes and suicide attempts. We are living longer and survive more life-threatening illnesses. This means that health literacy plays a much greater role in wellness than it used to.

People with low levels of health literacy are more reliant on services, healthcare providers, hospital and emergency services.  It also means people are less able to use programs to keep them healthy.

Health literacy contributes to health inequities because people with low health literacy also have poorer health outcomes.

Is health literacy linked more generally to literacy?

It is important to remember that even people with good literacy skills may have trouble finding, understanding and using healthcare information and services. Medical terms are often difficult to understand and navigating the healthcare system can be difficult. Stress and anxiety can limit our ability to listen, learn, and remember.

What is low health literacy?

Low health literacy is when a person has trouble understanding health and medical information, or even when or how to seek health care. Not knowing how to take medication correctly, being unable to access screening, or follow home care instructions, or not understanding a diagnosis, are examples of low health literacy.

How is low literacy and numeracy connected to poor health?

People who struggle with reading, writing and maths often have poor health. A person with low levels of health literacy may have difficulty reading and interpreting medical information and advice.  Poor literacy can have a major impact on health outcomes at both a personal and societal level.

People with low literacy:

  • have more difficulty managing their own health and illnesses
  • have less knowledge of health conditions and treatment
  • have greater dependence on health care providers
  • use emergency services more
  • are admitted to hospital more
  • experience more medication and treatment errors.

Is simplifying information dumbing it down and being disrespectful to consumers?

Research shows that health workers tend to rate people’s health literacy higher than it is.

Plain language is about communicating with your audience, so they understand. It’s about safety, efficiency, fairness and effectiveness.

How can an organisation be “health literate”?

Community sector organisations are already working hard to support people no matter what their health literacy levels. We can work on our organisational health literacy to do even more. Good organisational health literacy practices make it easier for people to find, understand and use the information and services they need, so that they can have better health and wellbeing.

How does organisational health literacy relate to good practice and quality standards?

Acting on health literacy can help our organisations to meet or exceed accreditation standards in areas such as outcomes for clients, consumer rights, evidence-based practice, and community development.  Quality Improvement Standards have been mapped against the six dimensions of a health literate organisation and can be found on the resources page. They are also mapped together in Tool #9.

What are some examples of good organisational health literacy?

Providing clear information in plain language for consumers to help them make informed decisions, engaging with consumers in a friendly and welcoming way, providing clear signs and simple directions or maps on how to find services, and involving consumers in decision making, are all examples of good organisational health literacy Creating an environment that supports people find their way in the healthcare system; preparing them to interact productively with their healthcare provider; and providing a respectful and caring environment.

Can I improve the health literacy of my clients?

Yes, you can! It is very easy to support people to develop skills, for example, encourage them to ask questions, to help them find, understand and act on health and medical information.  We can also provide supportive environments that make it easier for people to get the information they need.  The HeLLOTas Toolkit is a good place start.