Health literacy

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is about being able to understand basic health information so you have the knowledge to understand your options and work with your healthcare professional to take better control of your health.

Information about health comes to us from many different sources such as newspapers, television, websites and advertising. At times, it can be very confusing. During stressful times in our lives we often need to deal with complicated information and make complex decisions about treatment.

Health literacy involves us being able to understand basic health information whether we receive it in writing, in person or over the phone. We should all have the ability to understand our treatment options and make informed decisions about our own health.

Research shows that many people find it difficult to read and understand health-related information such as signage, information leaflets, directions on medicine packs, consent forms, prescriptions and medical advice.

Health literacy is an important issue in Ireland today. The International Adult Literacy Survey, conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1997, found that over 50% of Irish adults are affected in some way by literacy difficulties such as problems with reading, writing and numbers.

The results of the 2007 Irish Health Literacy Research, sponsored by MSD and NALA, revealed the following:

  • One in five Irish people are not fully confident that they understand all the information they receive from their healthcare professional (doctor, nurse or pharmacist).
  • 43 percent of people would only sometimes ask their healthcare professional to clarify the information if they did not understand something they had said.
  • One in 10 people have taken the wrong dose of medication because they didn’t understand instructions.
  • Two thirds of people have difficulty understanding signs and directions in Irish hospitals.

Why does health literacy matter in healthcare settings?

People working in the healthcare sector play an important part in improving health literacy by communicating more clearly and making information more accessible to patients.
Research suggests that people with low health literacy:

  • make more mistakes with medication or treatment,
  • are less able to follow treatment instructions,
  • lack the skills needed to negotiate the healthcare system, and
  • are more likely to be hospitalised than people with adequate literacy skills.

NALA has developed the following ‘top tips’ for health professionals to follow when communicating with patients:

  • Avoid medical jargon - use plain English instead.
  • Use images or visual aids where possible.
  • Use the ‘teach back method’ - ask the patient to repeat what you have told them in their own words to make sure they understand.


Literacy difficulties can increase the potential for miscommunication in the healthcare environment.

This miscommunication can lead to additional hospital and doctor visits, longer hospital stays and extra tests, procedures and prescriptions. US research shows that only about half of all patients take medicines as directed.

This puts an unnecessary strain on hospital resources and finances.
People with low health literacy may find many aspects of the healthcare environment daunting and, as a result, may not receive important health information. For example, research has shown that patients:

  • often misunderstand their diagnosis based on a lack of understanding of complex medical terms,
  • find it difficult to navigate a hospital due to unclear signage, and
  • are unable to read or understand the complex information on medicine packaging.

For more information go to the National Adult Literacy Agency website.