Why is health literacy important?

profile picture of Sheila Pinion
Health Content Editor at Bupa UK
28 June 2023
Next review due June 2026

Literacy helps us understand the world around us. It describes how we read, write, and communicate. And in the context of health information, literacy gives us the power to manage our own health and wellbeing. This year, the first theme of Health Information Week is health literacy. Read on to find out more about why health literacy is so important, and how it benefits our health.

person sitting on a sofa and browsing on a laptop

What is health literacy?

Health literacy means you’re able to understand and use health care information and services. Health information covers all sorts of topics that affect your health, from medical conditions and illnesses to diet, exercise, and wellbeing.

It’s estimated that around 1 in 10 adults have difficulty using health information – a number that increases to 6 in 10 if numbers are involved.

Health literacy is affected by many things, including:

  • how easy you find reading
  • how well you understand numbers and statistics
  • whether or not the information is presented in your first language
  • how comfortable you are with medical words and phrases
  • how you’re feeling – if you’re unwell, tired, stressed, or upset, this can affect how you interpret information

Why does healthy literacy matter?

You might be looking for health information because you have concerns about your own health, or about the health of a loved one.

Whatever the reason, understanding health information is crucial to making informed decisions about our health. And looking after our health is one of the most important things we can do.

Having a good level of health literacy means you can learn more about how to keep yourself well. And if you become unwell, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s happening. You can also make decisions about any treatment you might need.

For example, if you take medication, it’s important that you understand how to take it correctly and reduce the risk of unwanted side-effects.

A good level of health literacy is also thought to:

  • improve your mental health
  • increase your health knowledge
  • improve your confidence
  • build resilience – our ability to recover
  • promote healthy lifestyle changes
  • give you the power to manage any long-term (chronic) conditions

Finding it hard to understand and use health information is associated with being more likely to smoke, less likely to exercise, and having a poor diet. In the long term, a low level of health literacy can lead to ill health and limit our ability to look after ourselves.

How do you make content accessible?

At Bupa, we believe that trustworthy health information is key to living well and looking after your health. And as part of our PIF TICK accreditation, we create content in a way that meets the health and literacy needs of our audience.

Our aim is to produce information that is accessible to everyone. This means we need to consider who is reading our information, and their level of health literacy.

The following are a few things we can do to make our information easier to understand, and easier for more people to access it.

1. Aim for a reading age of 9 to 11 years

Health information can be complex, and 7 million adults in the UK read at, or below, the level of an average 9-year-old. To make our information easy to read, we use short sentences (no longer than 25 words) and simple language that can be understood by everybody.

2. Define complex terms

Medical terms can be complicated and if we use them, we also explain what they mean in plain English. If the term is especially long or hard to say, we also include a phonetic spelling to help pronounce it. And if we use an acronym, we’ll always write it out in full first.

3. Use clear and plain language

We avoid jargon and use plain English wherever possible. We also avoid idioms, as their meaning is not always clear.

4. Break up text into manageable sections

Sometimes, there’s a lot of information to explain and all of it is relevant. To make text easier to read and navigate we use headings, subheadings, and bullet-point or numbered lists (like this one). Our paragraphs are no longer than 100 words.

5. Incorporate feedback

At the bottom of each A-Z health information page, we include a link to a feedback survey. We use that feedback when we review our content, to improve it and to make sure that our content is accessible.

6. Provide references and sources

We also make sure that the sources that our facts come from are easy to see. For example, we cite our reference sources at the bottom of our health content pages. This allows readers to check that our information is based on credible evidence.

7. Present content in multiple formats

We sometimes produce our written information in other formats, such as videos, podcasts, and infographics. This allows us to reach more people with different learning preferences and accessibility needs. Or those who might prefer information presented in a more visual way.

8. Include image descriptions.

To reach people with visual and hearing difficulties we provide image descriptions (alt-text) for our online images and text alternatives for infographics. We also provide written transcripts for our videos and podcasts.

These multimedia formats provide a different way to communicate, in a way that’s sometimes shorter and easier to understand than a page of text. Infographics are often easier to digest and remember than paragraphs of text.

For example, a visual representation of how many units of alcohol there are in a drink could be more memorable than a written list.

In summary, health literacy is empowering. It gives people the ability to manage their health, and any health conditions they might have. And making health information accessible means that anybody, regardless of their level of health literacy, can make informed decisions.

profile picture of Sheila Pinion
Sheila Pinion (she/her)
Health Content Editor at Bupa UK



Marcella McEvoy, Senior Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

    • What is literacy? National Literacy Trust., accessed 5 June 2023
    • Health information: are you getting your message across? National Institute for Health and Care Research., accessed 5 June 2023
    • Improving health literacy to reduce health inequalities. Public Health England., published September 2015
    • Rowlands G, Protheroe J, Winkley J, et al. A mismatch between population health literacy and the complexity of health information: an observational study. Br J Gen Pract 2015;65:e379-86. doi:10.3399/bjgp15X685285
    • Health literacy matters. Patient Information Forum., published June 2021
    • Your questions answered. Patient Information Forum., published June 2022
    • Protheroe J. Health literacy: a necessity for increasing participation in health care. Br J Gen Pract 2009;59:721-23. doi:10.3399/bjgp09X472584

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. This is because we believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and wellbeing.

Our information has been awarded the PIF TICK for trustworthy health information. It also follows the principles of the The Information Standard.

The Patient Information Forum tick

Learn more about our editorial team and principles >

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