To make good decisions about our health, we need to find, understand, appraise and apply health information. This is the essence of good health literacy.
What is the issue?
Levels of health literacy in England are very low: 43% of working age adults cannot understand textual health information, rising to 61% when a numeracy element is added (1); and 43% adults are unable to calculate paracetamol dosage for a child based on age and weight (2). Individual health literacy also varies. If someone has just had a significant diagnosis, then their ability to comprehend information will be reduced.
As people live longer with multiple health conditions, they need to be able to make the treatment choices that are right for them, and to understand how to use self-management techniques or take medications.
What role for health library staff?
Working with patients and the public takes different forms within NHS library and knowledge services. All depend upon library and knowledge services staff having the confidence to see how core skills in finding evidence and appraising sources apply to health information materials for patients and the public. Supporting the health literacy awareness of colleagues, and identifying information resources of differing levels of complexity, can enable library and knowledge services to have an impact on the way that patient information materials are used. This supports treatment choice and effective self-management of health conditions. For this reason, health literacy is a priority for Knowledge for Healthcare work on patient and public information in 2018-2020
Library personnel in education and public library sectors are keen to collaborate on health literacy, as the information literacy and digital literacy skills that they promote feed into health literacy. Whereas good information literacy in education may be seen as a short-term benefit for coursework, health literacy is a life skill.
In 2018-19 we will be offering training on health literacy awareness and accredited “train the trainer” training for health library and knowledge services staff in England, which can be used as the basis of training for NHS staff and partner organisations, including public libraries.
In the meantime, resources are available to increase your awareness of health literacy issues, with tools that you can use. Working with NHS England, Public Health England and the Community Health and Learning Foundation, Health Education England has developed a health literacy toolkit, including case studies and a “how to” guide https://www.hee.nhs.uk/our-work/health-literacy .
If you have ideas, questions or would like to be involved in shaping health literacy activity, contact Ruth.Carlyle@hee.nhs.uk
- Rowlands, G. et al. A mismatch between population health literacy and the complexity of health information: an observational study. British Journal of General Practice Jun;65(635):e379-86. doi: 10.3399/bjgp15X685285. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26009533
- Mayor, S. 2012. Nearly half adults in England don’t understand health information, study indicates. British Medical Journal 345:e8364 https://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e8364