In the second in our series of blogs to mark Health Literacy month, Eleanor Stanley explains why health literacy is so important and what we, as healthcare communicators, can do about it.
If you produce health information, there’s a good chance a lot of the people you want to reach can’t understand what you write. In England, only 53% of adults have the literacy skills, and only 39% have the numeracy skills, to routinely understand health information.1 Meanwhile, 1.6% of the UK population can’t speak English well – or at all.2
What is health literacy?
The World Health Organization defines health literacy as:
‘a level of knowledge, personal skills and confidence to take action to improve personal and community health by changing personal lifestyles and living conditions.’
So, health literacy is about making sure the health information we produce is designed to help the user improve their health.
This means thinking about reading and number skills: making sure we communicate in ways that people are able to understand.
But it also goes beyond that. Health literacy overlaps with digital exclusion and disability access too. If someone can’t get online, or can’t clearly see the font you’ve chosen, they can’t digest your information either.
And even if your users can understand your information, if they don’t find it engaging or motivating, all that hard work may have been for nothing. So, things like images, iconography, terminology, tone of voice, or what channel we use might alienate the very people we want to reach.
Who does health literacy benefit?
It’s true that lots of people with the highest health literacy needs are in deprived communities. These are also the communities facing the greatest health inequalities and high levels of poor health. So, groups that often face exclusion must be a priority.
But Health literacy benefits our audiences. But if we want our information to do its job, then – clearly – it benefits us, as information producers, too.
What can we do?
Lots of things! Here are some of them:
- Sift your copy through a readability tool. Find out more here.
- Communicate statistics, numbers and risk using visual aids, like these. If you use images, make sure users find them useful.
- Gather whatever information you can about your audience.
- Develop processes for working with users (see this useful resource). They can feed into your ideas at the planning stage and check content and design as you work through the process.
- Put a health literacy policy in place. That will help make sure it’s at the top of people’s minds when they are planning information.
Remember, health communication is an art as well as a science. So, combine these tips with all the usual good editorial and design practice.
What does the end result look like?
That all depends on your audience. It could be a clear, engaging patient leaflet. But it might be a series of WhatsApp messages, a short film or a package of information delivered face to face. A combination of approaches works even better.
Find out more
Health literacy matters poster Patient Information Forum
Health literacy ‘how to’ guide Health Education England
The health literacy place website pulling together learning from multiple Scottish health bodies to promote health literacy
Health Literacy UK website showcasing the latest evidence on health literacy
1. Rowlands, G et al (2015) British Journal of General Practice 65: e379-e386
The Difference Collective is a group of health literacy experts, communicators and healthcare strategists. Get in touch to discuss how we can help you look at your organisation’s approach to health literacy and help you produce better health information.
Eleanor Stanley is a health communications consultant with more than 20 years’ experience. She specialises in shaping complex topics into content that audiences find genuinely engaging and which inspires action or change.