Health literacy is the degree to which individuals can obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Health literacy is dependent on individual and systemic factors:
- Communication skills of laypersons and professionals
- Lay and professional knowledge of health topics
- Demands of the healthcare and public health systems
- Demands of the situation/context
Health literacy affects people’s ability to:
- Navigate the healthcare system, including filling out complex forms and locating providers and services
- Share personal information, such as health history, with providers
- Engage in self-care and chronic-disease management
- Understand mathematical concepts such as probability and risk
Health literacy includes numeracy skills. For example, calculating cholesterol and blood sugar levels, measuring medications, and understanding nutrition labels all require math skills. Choosing between health plans or comparing prescription drug coverage requires calculating premiums, co-pays, and deductibles. In addition to basic literacy skills, health literacy requires knowledge of health topics. People with limited health literacy often lack knowledge or have misinformation about the body as well as the nature and causes of disease. Without this knowledge, they may not understand the relationship between lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise and various health outcomes. Health information can overwhelm even persons with advanced literacy skills. Medical science progresses rapidly. What people may have learned about health or biology during their school years often becomes outdated or forgotten, or it is incomplete. Moreover, health information provided in a stressful or unfamiliar situation is unlikely to be retained.
It is imperative that nursing responds to the call of creating a health literate society by taking an active role in health literacy research, education, and promotion. Nurses have a professional and ethical obligation to communicate in a clear, purposeful way that addresses the unique information needs of each patient. Evidence-based strategies that promote health literacy must be incorporated in every patient’s plan of care and become part of the routine practice of nursing. The goal of all patient interactions should be to empower the patient to obtain, understand, and act on information that is needed for optimal health. This article explores the concept of health literacy and its relationship with patient education and communication. Practical strategies that the nurse can use to assess, communicate with, and evaluate comprehension in patients with low literacy skills are provided.
Improving health literacy in populations provide the foundation on which citizens are enabled to play an active role in improving their health, engage successfully with community action for health, and push governments to meet their responsibilities in addressing health and health equity. Meeting the health literacy needs of the most disadvantaged and marginalised societies will particularly accelerate progress in reducing inequities in health and beyond. Efforts to raise health literacy will be crucial in whether the social, economic and environmental ambitions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are fully realised.