7 things you need to know about health literacy

By Antonia Kanczula, Managing Editor

A woman who misunderstood her asthma inhaler instructions and sprayed it on her neck and a man who did not turn up for cancer tests because he was confused by hospital signs. These are just two of the stark examples given by NHS Digital about the real-life impacts of low health literacy.

But what is health literacy and why is it important? Quite simply, lots of people struggle to understand the health info they’re given and how to act on it – and when and how to access health services. And it has consequences for their long-term wellbeing.

As health content producers, it’s easy to assume that everyone gets it. But the reality is so far removed from this. Making sure your health information is easy to understand and to use needs to be an essential part of content, just like good design or a sound evidence base.

Here’s why…

  1. Low health literacy is much more common than you might expect…

In England, it’s thought that over four in ten working age adults are unable to understand and make use of everyday health information. This rises to six in ten when numeracy skills are required, meaning that percentages or other complicated stats stump most people.

These figures are even bleaker when you consider them in the context of the UK’s digital divide. As content producers we rely on digital platforms to distribute good quality health information, but they can’t be readily accessed by millions of people. According to Ofcom, over 2 million households in the UK struggle to afford internet access and around 10 million people lack the most basic digital skills.

  1. Health literacy isn’t just about having good literacy and numeracy skills

Professor of Public Health Don Nutbeam first classified levels of health literacy, which recognise the importance of basic reading, writing and numeracy skills, but also more advanced interactive and critical abilities.

In a nutshell, they are:

  • Functional health literacy: you have basic skills to help you can get by and can only process relevant health information.
  • Interactive health literacy: you have more advanced literacy skills that enable you to extract and use information, and to act independently.
  • Critical health literacy: you have advanced skills that mean you can critically analyse information and use this information to better manage life events and situations.
  1. People with low health literacy skills have worse health outcomes

The consequences of low health literacy are far reaching. If you’re not able to understand your health conditions, recognise signs and symptoms or understand your medication, you’re more likely to have poor overall health. You’re unlikely to attend routine medical appointments and use preventative services such as vaccinations and screening, so you can’t adequately self-manage your health. As a result, you’re more likely to require emergency treatment and be admitted to hospital, and sadly, have a lower life expectancy.

  1. People on low incomes or who are disadvantaged are more likely to have low health literacy

In the UK, low health literacy is part of a complex picture of health inequality. People with limited financial and social resources are more likely to be in poorer health and therefore, most need good health information. But they’re also more likely to have lower literacy and numeracy skills, so they’re unable to self-manage their wellbeing. This includes many people living in the UK who cannot speak English well or at all.

  1. Content producers should consider the whole package – not just the written word

Poor design can make it harder for people to find and understand information. When you’re producing health information, it’s key that accessible, clear visual presentation is married with clear language. Cleverly designed infographics, illustrative photos and other creative assets can rev up your content’s reach and impact.

  1. Coproducing your content with your target audience can help

When you’re working within a team that has a high level of health knowledge, it can be hard to put yourself in the shoes of an audience with low literacy levels. Taking an empathetic approach and collaborating with people from your target audience ensures you capture different perspectives and reflect them in your final product.

  1. There are tools and simple strategies to help create accessible health information

There are simple ways to make your content easier to digest, such as structuring your content in a logical and clear way, and choosing your words to suit a reading age of 9 to 11 years old, something the Patient Information Forum recommends.

There are also free tools and techniques you can use, such as Hemingway Editor, which highlights complicated copy, the SCULPT approach and the SMOG index.

Antonia is the Managing Editor at Thrive. She is responsible for overseeing our team of editors and delivering engaging health content.

Here at Thrive, we recently steered a client through the accreditation process. That got us thinking about effective ways to streamline all the preparation required before applying.

Now we’re out the other side, we’ve created ‘How to use the accreditation process to improve your health content’ – the guide we wished we’d had six months ago.

To receive the complete guide straight to your inbox please fill in the short form below and we’ll email it to you directly:



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