No patient empowerment without health literacy

Patient empowerment has become the NHS’ holy grail, and rightly so as it promises to enable patients to have more control over their care packages and strengthen prevention as well as self-care. Undoubtedly this would be hugely beneficial, amongst others, in the treatment of long-term conditions such as cryptogenic organising pneumonia, diabetes, asthma and obesity, which are putting our health system under enormous pressure.

With the government’s plans to increase the amount of high quality health data available to all, and to enable patients to access their own medical records by 2015, its hope is for patients to become active participants in their health and well-being, thus contributing to better outcomes and helping reduce health inequalities.

However, for patients to become active participants in their own care requires some degree of health literacy. Recent research by London South Bank University (LSBU) found that 43% of people aged between 16 and 65 years old are unable to “effectively understand and use” everyday healthcare information. This figure rises to 61% when the information requires mathematics skills which means that between 15 – 21 million people of working age across the country may not be able to understand and use the information they need to look after their health.

Previous research from the US has shown that people with low health literacy levels have poorer health, are less likely to engage in cancer screening programmes and therefore less likely to be able to manage illnesses such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and asthma. This new research from LSBU suggests that this may also be true for the population across England.

Much of the focus so far has been on the digital divide and whether older generations are able to use apps and technology that enable them to access more healthcare information. However, with more than two-fifths of adults unable to properly take in the information such as screening posters, labels on medicines and letters from GPs, surely it is the duty of the government to make sure that anyone who needs it, gets support to understand information about their health and care. This makes health literacy a key public health concern as the ability to understand and act on information is vital if patients are to become active participants in decisions about their health.

With potentially 61% of people not being able to make sense of the content of their medical records, should the government focus on reducing the impact of low health literacy on people’s health and health inequalities?

Health literacy is about empowering individuals and communities to read, understand and use healthcare information to access services and to better manage any illnesses they experience.

People develop their health literacy over time from a wide variety of sources. These may include their family and work settings; education; health providers; health information; the media; social networks and a wide variety of community-based resources, such as support groups dedicated to smoking cessation and healthy eating.

Now is the time to tackle health literacy and develop strategies to truly empower patients from all walks of life. Maybe something the government should include in its Information Strategy?

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