Applying the International Handbook of Health Literacy to health library and knowledge services

Personal reflections by Ruth Carlyle

The International Handbook of Health Literacy was published at the beginning of August 2019. Thanks to funding from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the 740 page volume is available open access

The editors bring together a truly international set of papers in the 45 chapters. The volume is in four parts: research into health literacy, an overview of recent developments; programmes and interventions to promote health literacy; policy programmes to promote health literacy; and future dialogue and new perspectives.

As a collected work, the International Handbook of Health Literacy affirms the relevance of health literacy across a wide range of disciplines and ‘the potential that has been attributed to health literacy in order to understand, explain and tackle individual as well as group differences in various health outcomes’ (p. xxi). Despite this potential, there is no unanimously accepted definition or measurement of health literacy (p. xxii, 139). Most of the definitions also focus on the ‘literacy’ aspects of ‘health literacy’ rather than the ‘health’ aspects (p. 649).

In the closing chapter, Stephan Van der Bourke suggests that there are three types of strategy that can be applied to address low health literacy: better health communication; better health education for the general population; and creating health literacy-friendly settings (p. 706).

Considered from the perspective of library and information services, the specific references to libraries and librarians appear in the third section of the volume, on policy programmes to promote health literacy. It is notable that the most extensive references appear in Chapter 28 on the development and implementation of Making it easy and Making it easier as health literacy policies for Scotland. NHS Education for Scotland works with library and knowledge services across a range of sectors to improve ‘signposting to useful health information’ (p. 425) and identifies closer working with librarians as one of the areas for further development (p. 431). Librarians elsewhere are involved in supporting health literacy through training the healthcare workforce (National Network of Libraries of Medicine, United States, p. 499), embedding health literacy into research and practice (British Columbia, p. 447) and creating portals of resources (New Zealand, p. 508).

The multidisciplinary and international nature of the handbook provide a resource that emphasises the scale of low health literacy as an issue and the need for a shared approach working across disciplines. The individual chapters provide insights into research studies and the needs of specific audiences, such as children and older people. Themes through the volume provide evidence of the importance of improving the awareness and communication of healthcare professionals, signposting to high-quality health information for the public and creating health literacy-friendly environments. These reinforce the value of the roles that health library and knowledge services can play in health literacy.

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