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Health Literacy Around the World

Categories: International Health Literacy

On September 24, the Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Health Literacy (Roundtable) convened health literacy leaders from the United Nations and a dozen countries to discuss activities and progress around the world.

There was general agreement that educational systems have not provided the majority of people with the literacy skills they need to find, read, listen to, analyze, understand and use health information and access health services. Participants also agreed that health care systems – public and private – are not prepared to address the low levels of health literacy skills in the populations they serve.

Dr. Ilona Kickbusch of Switzerland noted that the population data on health literacy skills show how poorly we have done around the globe with our health promotion programs. According to Dr. Kickbusch, if our health promotion efforts had been more successful, our populations would be better prepared to access and use health information and services. She proposes that people are empowered when they have choice, control and skills. (An audio recording of all the speakers is on the Roundtable page under the webinar link.)

Despite common problems, each country has its own approach to health literacy improvement. In Australia, health literacy work is part of the national Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care. Canada has a long history of connecting health literacy with health promotion and the public health sector leads the health literacy work. Ireland’s health literacy activities are linked to the country’s adult literacy agency and its efforts to improve the population’s literacy skills not only in health but also in family literacy and workforce readiness.

The U.S. National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy has influenced some countries’ approaches. For example, Canada’s “inter-sectoral” approach echoes the multi-sectoral approach in the U.S. plan. Participants expressed interest in the U.S. Action Plan as an example of a comprehensive framework for health literacy work.

If you attended the meeting (in person or by webinar), which developments were most interesting to you? If your country wasn’t represented at the meeting, what health literacy activities are happening where you live?

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this blog is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. September 29, 2012 at 12:56 pm ET  -   Jory

    Although I was unable to attended the global health literacy conference, but having taking other classes and attended other presentations on health literacy I feel that more research is required in the area of health literacy. Studies have shown conflicting results when trying to match health literacy with patient outcomes. According to the 2011 article, “Caring for patients with limited health literacy: A 76 year old man with multiple medical problems” Dr. Paasche-Orlow discusses how limited health literacy showed little effect on patients with diabetes. There have also been studies that have shown that improving health literacy can decrease medication errors, improve knowledge of illness, and increase visit adherence. Although improving health literacy is certainly a major public health issue, more research is required to figure out if improving health literacy will lead to better patient outcomes.

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  2. September 29, 2012 at 12:50 pm ET  -   Ryan

    Having been unable to attend the global health literacy conference, but having taken other classes on Health Literacy and Global Health, I feel this is a strong area of need. As an American, my country is always heavily represented, though more work, research and implementation of these policies are needed. Where I live we have a variety of Health Literacy programs going on ensuring the many people within the community have access to the health care they deserve. As a multi-lingual community there has been a push to translate all medical information, outreach, questionnaires, ect. into the appropriate languages so that non-native English speakers have the best access possible. Likewise, some activities here are geared at converting the latest medical research (like new nutritional guidelines) into health literate information so that even the health illiterate can be kept up to date on current trends in medicine.

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