The Patients Association is on a journey. We are working to secure patients’ position as genuine partners in decisions about their own care and in shaping the health and care system.

As part of that, we’re improving how we work in partnership with patients and members ourselves and I believe an important part of that is ensuring that our advice and information, as well as our newsletter and website, are accessible to all who want or need help and information.

It’s still work that’s in progress, but as October is Health Literacy Month, I wanted to share what we’ve been doing.

What we mean by health literacy

Health literacy refers to people’s skills, knowledge, and confidence that enables them to access, understand, evaluate, use and navigate health and social care information and services.

People’s ability to understand health information is affected by how clear the information organisations provide is, but research in England shows that more than two fifths of working-age adults don’t understand everyday health information.

Why health literacy is important

A person’s ability to understand health information is linked to how they use health services and the benefits they get from the healthcare they access.  Having limited health literacy is linked to a range of negative things such as having a poor diet, not managing long-term health conditions well, and having to resort to emergency health services.

At the Patients Association, we’re particularly concerned about such widespread levels of low health literacy because we know that in addition to poor health outcomes, it undermines a person’s ability to work in partnership with healthcare professionals to take control of their health and speak up for what they want to happen.

Improving health literacy is an important way to reduce health inequalities, because the people most likely to have poor health literacy are usually those from vulnerable and disadvantaged groups who have the poorest health outcomes.

What we’re doing to support health literacy

There are two sides to health literacy: a person’s ability to understand and use information to make decisions about their health and care; and how complicated and accessible health information is. 

We recently surveyed our members and asked questions about how accessible our online information, website and newsletter are.  Most respondents said they found our information easy to understand but we did have a significant number of people who pointed out some issues around accessibility, such as size of text. We will address these comments because we are committed to making all our information as accessible as we can. This includes thinking carefully about the kind of language we use and avoiding jargon, and looking into how we can use Easy Read. Easy Read is a way of presenting information using pictures and plain English to make what may be difficult information, easier to understand.

First steps will see us add a feedback function on our website so people who have accessed any of our advice and information leaflets can comment on how useful they found them, and if they weren’t useful, why not.  We will also train staff in Easy Read, as well as consider which information we should provide in future in Easy Read formats. 

We work with the Patient Information Forum to ensure that our information is high-quality and accessible to all, no matter their health literacy. We have also established our lived experience advisory panel, which is made up of people from marginalised communities. I sit on the panel so that I can learn from its members about their concerns and the challenges they face in accessing health services. 

While we alone cannot improve the health literacy of individuals, we can do more to understand how we can make our information easier to understand. In that way, we hope to improve the health outcomes of people from marginalised communities.