What is health literacy?

Communication and Health Literacy

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Health literacy is the skills and knowledge of a person to access, understand and use information to make decisions, and take action about health and healthcare. This includes all areas of health and well-being.

The health literacy environment is the way services are provided, and the things that make it easier or harder for people to access, understand, and use information and services.

For healthy people and efficient, effective health services, we need to:

  • improve health literacy levels across the population
  • improve the health literacy environments within our services, to match the health literacy levels of the people who use our services.

Why is health literacy important?

More than three out of every five Tasmanians do not have adequate health literacy (1). This means accessing, understanding or appropriately using health information is difficult for most people. This can lead to poorer health, more use of hospitals, difficulty controlling medical conditions, medication mistakes and greater health expenses (2).

Health literacy is important because knowledge is power. Health literacy has a big impact on decisions people make that affect their health and well-being. It has been described as a better predictor of health than education, socio-economic status, employment, racial background or gender (3).  Health literacy also has a big impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of health and human services.

Poor health literacy makes it harder for people to:

  • access health services – know who to see and when, fill in forms and share important information with workers
  • care for themselves and manage their health effectively.

Those with poor health literacy:

  • have less knowledge about illnesses and injuries, treatment options, what causes ill-health and the importance of healthy lifestyles
  • find it harder to understand and remember information
  • are more dependent on service providers and health and community services, but less likely to use programs to keep them healthy or take action early, like cancer screening, health assessments and routine immunisations.

What can we do about health literacy?

We all have a role in making it easier for people to access, understand and use health information and services.

This includes how we communicate, provide services, and respond to people’s needs. Such as:

  • providing the best information to the needs of each person and checking it is understood
  • providing information in a variety of formats including written and spoken information, pictures, diagrams, models, audio-video demonstrations and group discussions
  • using plain language
  • providing effective instructional and directional signs
  • considering the physical design and layout of services
  • having excellent telephone and reception service standards
  • helping people to complete forms
  • providing staff orientation and ongoing training.

The health, community and education sectors can work together to improve the health and wellbeing of all Tasmanians.

  1. Australian Social Trends, Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4102.0, June 2009
  2. Johnson A. Health literacy, does it make a difference? Australian Journal of Advanced Nursing Vol 31 No 3. Canberra:
  3. Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, 20142. B Weiss, 'Epidemiology of health literacy' in Schwartzber J et.al. (Eds) Understanding health literacy: implications for medicine and public health. American Medical Association, AMA Press, 2005, pp. 17–40.

Updated December 2018