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What is health literacy?

Abbey Stanford profile photo
Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK
08 July 2021

This week it’s Health Information Week and today we’re focussing on health literacy. Here I’ll explain what health literacy is, why it’s important and how health information can be made easier for everybody to understand.

It’s likely that you’ll need to access health information at some point in your life, whether it’s for yourself or for a loved one. This might include the instructions that come with a new medicine, a leaflet about stopping smoking or an online article about a health condition. But, this information can sometimes be hard to understand.

What is health literacy?

“Health literacy” means the skills you need to use and understand health information and use health services. It includes your ability to:

  • read and understand health information
  • be actively involved in decisions about your health and care
  • make changes that benefit your future health

If you struggle to make sense of health information you’re not alone. Around four out of 10 adults find it difficult to understand general health information. If the information involves numbers or sums, around six out of 10 people find it hard to understand.

What can affect health literacy?

Everybody has a different level of health literacy and it can change over time, and in different situations. 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
  • whether you’re feeling unwell, tired, stressed or upset

For example, you might find reading about healthy eating quite easy, but find it harder to understand information about a specific illness.

We also know that some groups of people are more likely to find it harder to understand health information, including:

  • people with long-term illnesses
  • disabled people
  • migrants
  • some people from ethnic minorities
  • people from disadvantaged socioeconomic groups (for example, being unemployed)
  • older people

As Sophie Randall, Director at the Patient Information Forum explains: “Health and medicine have a very complex language full of jargon, so even people who read well can find they need a dictionary to understand some information. People can also find that they struggle to process information if they are unwell, facing the shock of a serious diagnosis or are undergoing treatment.”

Why is health literacy important?

Having a good level of health literacy is important because it means you can learn more about how to look after your health. It can also help you to understand what’s happening if you become sick and can help you to make informed decisions about whether a procedure or treatment is right for you.

Top tips for making health information easy to understand

If you’re creating health information, there are a lots of things you can do - to help make your information as easy as possible for everyone to read.

1. Ask

Involve the people who are using your information. Find out what kind of information they would find useful and how they would like it to be presented. When you’ve created a piece of information, ask them how it could be improved.

2. Simplify

Try to make the information you’re creating as easy to understand as possible using short sentences and paragraphs. Make sure that the style and tone of the information is friendly and reassuring.

3. Explain

Medical terms can be very confusing. Try to reduce the amount of medical and scientific jargon wherever possible. When you do have to use medical words or phrases, take the time to explain what they mean.

4. Show

Sometimes things can be best explained with pictures or videos, for example, how the different parts of the heart work. Consider using different ways of presenting information to make your point easier to understand.

5. Check

Use a readability scorer. There are lots of readability scorers available online, and some which are built into word processing software already. Aim for all of your health information to be readable by anybody as young as 11. This is because most people in the UK can read at this level.

Where to read more

If you want to learn more about finding easy-to-understand health information, check out these resources which you might find interesting.


Making information easy to use and understand is one of the key criteria of the PIF TICK quality mark for health information. BUPA is one of 40 organisations certified under the scheme. You can find out more about PIF TICK and find other organisations producing trusted health information at www.piftick.org.uk.

Abbey Stanford profile photo
Abbey Stanford (she/her)
Specialist Health Editor at Bupa UK

    • Improving health literacy to reduce health inequalities. Public Health England. www.gov.uk, published September 2015
    • Health literacy matters. Patient Information Forum. www.pifonline.org.uk, published June 2021

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