The term ‘health literacy’ refers to an individual’s or community’s ability to access, understand and use health information, and navigate the health system.

Importantly, health literacy levels are influenced by the health literacy environment: things like infrastructure, policies, processes, materials, people and relationships that make up the health system.

Health literacy is also determined by individual factors such as education, age, socio-economic status, or fluency in English.

Why is it important?

Health literacy is one of six regional health priorities identified in NWMPHN’s population health needs assessment. Nearly 60% of Australians have limited health literacy.

Low health literacy has been associated with:

  • increased hospital use
  • premature mortality in elderly
  • poorer ability to take medications appropriately
  • Lower rates of preventative health activities like flu vaccines, cancer screenings
  • Increased risk of adverse health events
  • Increased healthcare costs for the individual and health system
  • less active self-management.

Read more about the impacts of low health literacy on health outcomes in our document Communicating with patients: improving health literacy and outcomes (.pdf, 304kb).

NWMPHN is working to support primary care in our region become accessible and equitable, and to improve patient outcomes, particularly for by addressing health literacy environments.

What can health professionals do?

There are many ways you can address low health literacy in your community, improve patient outcomes and decrease your medicolegal risk.

Teach-back technique
The Teach-back technique focuses on the use of clear, simple language when speaking with patients and having them confirm their understanding by asking them to ‘teach-back’ the information.

Teach-back is a best practice communications method that can be used with all patients universally to reduce misunderstanding. It can also assist patients to better engage in their care.

This video demonstrates how to use the Teach-back technique: Teach back – a technique for clear communication. A toolkit for implementing Teach-back is available at Teach-back Training.


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