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Health literacy

Anyone can have problems with health literacy when placed in an unfamiliar or stressful environment and confronted with new and sometimes complex information. Poor health literacy can have a range of associated problems including poorer health status, greater risk of hospitalisation, less knowledge of health promoting behaviours, and less ability to self manage and to share decision making with healthcare professionals.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is defined as:

'The wide range of skills and competencies that people develop to seek out, comprehend, evaluate and use health information and concepts to make informed choices, reduce health risks, and increase quality of life'.


Understanding the social outcomes of learning  highlights that improving the health literacy of parents can not only improve there own health outcomes but can have an intergenerational effect on the health of their children.

An individual’s health literacy is influenced not only by their skills in reading and understanding health messages, but also the skills and flexibility of services in communicating messages and recognising the need to provide health information in appropriate formats. Health professionals must look at their services from the perspective of patients and be aware of possible barriers to understanding.

When giving information they should select written materials which are appropriate to the individuall, and use of diagrams, models and demonstrations to reinforce their message.

One tool that has been identified as a useful approach to improving health literacy is Teach–back. This technique allows health staff to check their ability to explain things clearly by asking the patient to explain or demonstrate in their own words what has been discussed.

For example:

‘To be sure I’ve explained this consent form clearly, can you tell me what you are agreeing to?’


‘We discussed a lot today. Can you tell me what you found most important?’

For copies of the teach back postcard, email

Health literacy framework

The Scottish Government's health literacy framework has been developed as part of its work on health inequalities and patient rights. As part of this work materials were developed to raise awareness of health literacy for staff within the health sector.

The materials are available from Adult literacies online

Further reading: