October: Start of a new season and ‘health literacy month’

As the seasons change, we start thinking more about our health and how we might stay healthy over the winter. October is health literacy month, and it makes this a great time to highlight this important health skill.

So, what is health literacy?

Health literacy is the ‘ability to make sound health decisions in the context of everyday life – at home, in the community, at the workplace, the healthcare system, the marketplace and the political arena’ (Kickbusch et al, 2005). People may find it hard to make sense of health-related information where new concepts or terms are used, or where they are not used to a particular health setting or technology. Equally when someone feels vulnerable or scared, it makes it very difficult for them to understand new information, so emotions are important too. Overall, health literacy impacts how people access, understand, judge, and use information and services.

Low health literacy is an important risk factor for future ill health as people with low health literacy don’t respond as well to health education and tend not to use health services. The good news is that if you improve a group’s health literacy, it helps make healthcare fairer and promotes health across populations. The responsibility for health literacy lies not just with people themselves but with society and health services. This means that for health literacy to improve, we must also consider how complex and demanding the health system is to use. Organisations or health systems that haven’t thought about health literacy will typically not be able to provide support that fits with the needs of people with lower health literacy. This is likely to result in those individuals not using their care and not benefiting from it.

It is because of this that the World Health Organisation has identified health literacy initiatives in healthcare as important actions to improve health equity and empower citizens.

Important for child and maternal health

Becoming a parent is challenging. During pregnancy, women need to use a completely different health service, digest lots of new information, learn new skills and meet many healthcare professionals. They may even have to face health complications like gestational diabetes, which will add extra layers of complexity and more intensive medical care. Therefore, the importance of providing solutions to women which address individual health literacy difficulties cannot be underestimated.

The Bump2Baby and Me study strives to support women’s health literacy. The study was designed to allow women from low education, low resources and/or rural and remote settings to participate. The study aims to ease the complexity in the maternity healthcare system and remove health literacy barriers women experience in accessing healthcare during and after pregnancy. The intervention offers tailored support based on the woman’s needs and the study will evaluate the health literacy impact of this.

We believe our approach will positively affect health literacy for the women participating in the Bump2Baby and Me study.

By Nanna Husted Jensen, Helle Terkildsen Maindal and Sharleen O’Reilly.