Low “health literacy” poses significant challenge

  • Date: 23 June 2014

NEARLY half of all adults in England find the health advice given to them by doctors and health professionals too complicated, according to a new report by the Royal College of General Practitioners.

Research highlighted in the report found that 43 per cent of the English adult working-age population cannot fully understand and use health information containing only text. When numerical information is included in health information, this proportion increases to 61 per cent.

The report points out that health professionals can sometimes overestimate the health literacy of patients who may then feel too embarrassed to ask questions. Doctors also often supplement verbal information with leaflets, presuming these can be read and understood without assistance.

Lower levels of health literacy - which can mean knowing how to take your medication in a safe and effective way or recognising the risks and benefits of different treatments - has been linked to worse physical and mental health, and serious health conditions such as heart failure and diabetes.

Research has found that levels of health literacy vary considerably across the country, with London being amongst the worst areas within the south of England. Those facing the biggest barriers are older people, black and ethnic minority groups, and those with lower incomes.

Maureen Baker, Chair of the RCGP said: "Too often, our healthcare environments fail to recognise the needs of people with different levels of understanding about their health, meaning that patients are failing to receive the right care at the right time.

"We know that low health literacy affects all areas of health and health care, which is why we want to encourage GPs and the wider NHS to ensure they are communicating complex information in a clear and manageable way.

"We look forward to working with NHS England to help shape a health system that is truly accessible to all."


Health Literacy: Report from an RCGP-led health literacy workshop

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