Health Literacy

What is health literacy, and how does it affect health?

Health literacy can be defined as ‘the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions’. Health literacy has been directly and indirectly linked to poor health outcomes, poor understanding of health information (verbal and written), less engagement in healthy lifestyles, poor knowledge of chronic disease and decreased self-management skills.

The 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS) assessed five domains of literacy: prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy, problem solving, and health literacy in a representative sample of 15-74 year old Australians (ABS, 2006). The survey found that the majority of Australians (60%) have low levels of health literacy. In addition, levels of health literacy were worse among Australians from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Improving health literacy enables patients to be active partners in their health care and better placed to make the positive choices required to lead a healthy life.

Using the simple strategies below, healthcare providers and consumers can both work towards better understanding of the consumer’s health.

Health Professionals

Each day, healthcare providers have the potential to improve their patients’ health literacy by using these simple communication techniques:

  1. Keep to 3-5 key points
  2. Use plain language: be specific and concrete not general
  3. Be positive, helpful and empowering – talk about what patient’s should do, not what they should not do.
  4. Draw pictures or demonstrate with models
  5. Engage patients to ask questions


By employing the three simple steps below, consumers become empowered to take charge of their own healthcare, and that of their family. Through clearer communication consumers will be better equipped to make smart decisions about their health:

  1. Ask Questions. Take a list of questions to your appointment
  2. Listen & Repeat. Listen to instruction from your health care provider and repeat back
  3. Take someone you trust with you. Take a family member, friend or interpreter for support