Health Literacy

“Health literacy is about how people understand information about health and how they apply that information to their lives, and use it to make decisions.”*

It also includes numeracy skills. For example, calculating cholesterol and blood sugar levels, measuring medications, and understanding nutrition labels. People with limited health literacy often lack knowledge or have misinformation about their body as well as the nature and causes of disease and the health service.

How well we understand health information affects how we understand:

  • how to fill out complex forms or find health services
  • the importance of sharing personal information, such as health history, with health professionals
  • how to manage a chronic disease
  • risk factors and how they can cause a disease
  • the relationship between lifestyle and health.
  • a medical diagnosis and making informed decisions about treatment
  • the role lifestyle, our genes (hereditary) and the environment play
  • the importance of screening and prevention behaviours (eg. self-examinations)

Health literacy shapes people’s health and the safety and quality of their health care.
Low levels of literacy contribute to poorer health outcomes, increased risk of an adverse events and higher healthcare costs.

In 2014 Australia’s national approach to health literacy adopted the National Statement on Health Literacy Health literacy depends on factors such as:

  • Communication skills of lay persons and professionals
  • Lay and professional knowledge of health topics
  • Culture
  • Demands of the healthcare and public health systems
  • Demands of the situation/context
  • Language and literacy skills

CanCare Cancer Patient Navigators help improve health literacy by

  • helping patients understand their diagnoses and treatment options
  • organise appointments
  • explaining complex terms, as best understood
  • in online search, finding information that well referenced and scientifically correct
  • ask the right type of questions at appointments
  • assisting patients with language or cultural barriers
  • serving as a point-of-contact between patients and the health care system
  • connecting patients to resources and services


Interview with Prof. Don Nutbeam on Health Literacy



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