Health Literacy – What is it? – Kirby Harley AEP


The World Health Organisation (2009) defines health literacy as “the cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to and understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health.” In short it is to have the ability to obtain, process and understand basic health information.


Health literacy is a group of specific skills needed to navigate the health care system. Skills such as reading, listening, analytical and decision-making skills and the ability to apply these skills are several factors that those with high health literacy possess. However, when taking into cultural, social and economical considerations, the majority of the population, and more specifically the Australian population, lack these traits. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) indicate that 60% of Australians lack basic health literacy. This signifies the importance of clear communication between both the health care providers and the clients.


Low health literacy is linked to higher risk of mortality, more emergency room visits and more hospitalisations. Fortunately, we are moving toward a more patient-centred approach to health education, to not only improve the quality of health care but also to reduce the cost of burden of disease. Health education, in this more comprehensive understanding, aims to influence not only individual lifestyle decisions, but also raises awareness of the determinants of health, and encourages individual and collective actions which may lead to a modification of these determinants.


We are beginning to use a more collaborative approach, which means the individual patients and health care providers are working together to achieve a common goal. This is mainly accomplished through effective communication and patient education. Through the utilisation of a combination of layman’s terms and professional language, practitioners can begin to empower their clients to have an active role in their health and wellbeing.  As a clinician, to ensure best practice, we need to be encouraging our clients to invest in their health and wellbeing, through self-management of their disease.


Your Health Practitioner Should:

  • Use plain language.
    • Layman’s terms
  • Provide continued education regarding disease.
    • Infographic
    • Facts sheets
    • Seminars
  • Limit the amount of information given at one time for understanding.
  • Check for understanding.
    • Use the teach-back method.
      • You relay the information back to your practitioner what you thought you heard/how you interpreted the information
      • If there is a gap in the information, your practitioner should close the gap by showing or explaining again.
    • Encourage questions.



Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Social Trends, June 2009. (2009). Retrieved 21 Nov 2020, from[email protected]/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features20June+ 2009

Health Literacy | NNLM. (2016). Retrieved 21 Nov 2020, from

WHO | Track 2: Health literacy and health behaviour. (2009). Retrieved 21 Nov 2020, from