Health literacy is more than just being able to read and understand information about health or health services. It is about understanding what services are available and how they can help if something is wrong.
Recently Richard Osborne and Alison Beauchamp visited Wales from Victoria, Australia, to talk about their experience of developing methods to improve the understanding, access to and utilisation of health information and health services by everyone, especially those who are most vulnerable.
Richard and Alison gave us this interview to help us share their learning more widely, take a look below.
Health literacy is clearly linked to health outcomes. Low health literacy leads to low overall health as people are unable to self-manage or find the right healthcare when they need it. We see the effects of poor health literacy in all the reports that are published about people not taking medication properly, or developing severe complications from long-term conditions.
It’s important for us all as we work in providing care to take health literacy into account, otherwise we will not be meeting the needs of everyone in our communities. When we get comments on our services being hard to access or understand, we need to take this into account.
Richard and Alison use an initial diagnostic questionnaire (the Health Literacy Questionnaire – HLQ), to diagnose the many challenges a person might have in understanding, accessing and using health services. Health literacy questionnaires are also useful for identifying the strengths of individuals and communities to manage their own health. The Ophelia (OPtimising HEalth LIterAcy) programme then supports the identification of community health literacy needs, and the development and testing of potential solutions using local knowledge and resources.
Most people – probably all people – want to be healthy and they want to live in healthy communities. They will often know the best ways of achieving that and can contribute to making communities healthier. So, using a health literacy questionnaire can help us tailor our work to ensure people are able to achieve their goals of a healthier future.
The approach is gaining interest from health organisations around the world because of the benefits health literacy can bring.
We can also use health literacy as a quality measure. If people are telling us that our services are hard to understand, or that they are not informed about their health, then we know that we aren’t delivering the best services we can. If people don’t feel they can trust clinical staff or rely on services being there for them, it is an indicator of the quality levels people perceive. It’s important to capture this experience of using healthcare services to really find out if they are as good as we think they are. We might be surprised as well to find that some services are meeting the needs of people to a greater extent than we thought they were.
One of the ways Richard Osborne describes health literacy is that it gives voice to the weakest people and it forces equity into the system. Those are very important for NHS Wales as we pursue the principles of person-centred care and the other key principles of prudent healthcare.
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