Health Literacy

A major element of the service that you may be called on to provide is to help users with health literacy issues, be it healthcare staff communicating with patients / public, or teaching non-health librarians (such as public library staff) how to help the public find quality information about healthcare.

What is Health Literacy and Why Is It Important?

“Health literacy is about people having enough knowledge, understanding, skills and confidence to use health information, to be active partners in their care, and to navigate health and social care systems”

Health literacy as a concept relates to communication in all forms – spoken, written, visual

It is important for patient safety, self-management of conditions, and maintaining effective relationships between healthcare staff and patients / families / carers.

What is Health Literacy?
NSW Mental Health Commission
Causal pathways through which health literacy influences health outcomes.
Source: Health literacy: applying current concepts to improve health services and reduce health inequalities
R.W. Batterham, M. Hawkins , P.A. Collins , R. Buchbinder, R.H. Osborne

Improving Health Literacy results in:

  • Improved health and health outcomes for patients
  • Improved understanding of medication information, instruction and adherence
  • Reduced risk of serious health problems due to misunderstanding
  • Reduced re-admissions and repeat appointments

What can we do?

We, as information professionals, are well equipped to help users in relation to Health Literacy. In our context, we have the skills to aid patients:

  • Recognise what they need to know about their condition and treatment options
  • Find that information, to fill those knowledge gaps,
  • Appraise the information to ensure it is good quality, and relevant to their personal context
  • Use the information with their health professionals so that they can make an informed decision that suits their needs

But, these are skills that are not simply limited to helping patients directly, as not every library or information professional will work directly with patients. So, we can use these skills as part of the work we do with health professionals as well – showing them how they can help their patients with their understanding.

Image has you in the centre surrounded by  5 overlapping circles.  From top and moving clockwise they read: Teach Back; Chunk and Check; Use pictures; Simple language and Routinely offer help
Source: Health Literacy and Public Information

We can encourage health professionals to ensure that the language they use with patients is simple and easy to understand, as well as introducing concepts such as “Teach Back” and “Chunk and Check“, which they can use with patients to ensure they understand what the health professional has told them.

‘We know some people think we shouldn’t use words like “pee” and “poo”, but we haven’t seen anyone have problems knowing what we mean. Most importantly, if someone with poor literacy understands “blood in your poo”, it might just save their life.’

Source – NHS website will simplify words to avoid confusion with patients

What do I need to know?


The NHS Digital Service Manual provides advice related to health literacy, detailing what it is and how user content can be produced so that all users are able to understand clearly.

Health Education England
Health Education England have produced a toolkit of practical resources aimed at healthcare staff to help deal with issues of health literacy.

  • Strategic Plan
  • Case Studies
  • Health Literacy Awareness Workshop
    • Session Plan
    • Slides
  • “How to” Guide

This has been produced in association with a number of other relevant organisations, including Public Health England, NHS England and the Community Health and Learning Foundation, and contains a range of resources that you can use and adapt for your own needs.

NHS Scotland
NHS Scotland has a dedicated website related to health literacy. This contains pages that contain dedicated tools and techniques to help support practice, materials to aid learning development, a library of evidence that supports health literacy interventions, and a library of resources to aid health literacy support.

Other organisations

The World Health Organization promotes health literacy on a worldwide basis – as part of its health promotion agenda, it has pages specifically related to health literacy and how it can be advanced globally.

Health Literacy Month is run every year between 1 and 31 October, and promotes the importance of health literacy to organisations worldwide. Run by the Institute for Healthcare Advancement, it is intended to draw attention to the issues of health literacy for all organisations that it would affect, with examples of the kind of event that could be run given.

Third sector organisations such as the King’s Fund produce their own content with health literacy as a core area.

Where can I learn more?

Who can I contact?

  • The team behind the e-LfH programme
  • Local / national networks
  • #healthliteracy on Twitter

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