Health literacy: what you need to know

Sarah Briggs

Interpreting health information isn’t always easy. Whether it’s getting to grips with a condition, the effects of your medication or reading Heart Matters, health literacy is more important than you might think. 

Lack of understanding is linked to a greater risk of hospitalisation, depression and death, and a reduced ability to manage your own and your family’s health. 

A 2015 study found more than two in five people in England are not health literate. The figure rose to more than three in five when ability to understand numbers was assessed. A BHF-funded study published in the BMJ in 2012 found a strong association between health literacy (demonstrated by the ability to understand written instructions for aspirin tablets) and death rates. Those with the lowest health literacy scores were more likely to die within five years than those with the highest scores.

And an American study published in the BMJ last year showed heart attack patients were more likely to be readmitted to hospital within 30 days if they had lower health literacy. 

Collaborative approach 

Heart attack patients were more likely to be readmitted to hospital if they had lower health literacy

The NHS is encouraging patients to take on a greater role in their own care. Health literacy is vital to this. Dr Jonathan Berry, NHS England’s health literacy expert, said: “Patient empowerment with self-care needs to be underpinned by good health literacy. Healthcare professionals need good awareness of the challenges faced by people with limited health literacy.” 

Over the last five years, regional bodies, community networks and charities have carried out health education programmes. NHS England aims to bring these under a national framework. Dr Berry said: “We will be looking at examples where existing health literacy activities are funded by statutory services and sharing these learnings with other organisations, such as charities, who might want to ask their local authority or health and wellbeing board to consider a similar funding model in their area. 

“The challenge is going to be how we can support the continuation and expansion of this on a population scale, with the shortfall in NHS funding.” Many people have trouble understanding health information. We explain how this could damage your health and what you can do about it.

Health literacy is vital to create a confident, expert patient who can self-monitor and self-care

Sarah Briggs
Specialist heart failure nurse

Sarah Briggs (pictured above) is a specialist heart failure nurse in Rotherham. She says: “Health literacy is vital to creating a confident, expert patient who can self-monitor and self-care. We believe promoting expertise among our patients increases understanding of heart failure and early, effective treatment, which improves symptoms, enhances quality of life and reduces hospital admissions.”

Her team is working to improve health literacy, including with a 12-week educational programme for heart failure patients. Patients and carers can also attend a half-day course on heart failure and treatment options, before they start taking medications. Sarah says the course reduces anxiety, so more people take their medication as prescribed. “We had comments like ‘I didn’t know what heart failure is until today’,” she says. “One patient said he had heart failure for seven years but never really understood it.” 

Peter’s story

Peter Allen

Peter Allen, 83, was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, heart failure and had a pacemaker fitted 15 years ago. With the help of his GP surgery, he monitors and adjusts his anticoagulant medication, so he only needs six clinic visits per year. Peter volunteers for Anticoagulation Europe. Anyone with coagulation issues in his area can contact him.

Peter said: “I’m one of those people who likes to know what’s going on with my health. Heart Matters’ Drug Cabinet section is really useful because it explains the different medications, and the interactions between them. “I found Heart Matters by chance lying in my doctor’s waiting room. The important thing is that everyone gets access to these sources of information, but often people don’t know where to find it.” 

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