Research led by LSBU academic Professor Gill Rowlands highlights the need to simplify health information
17 July 2013
New research into health literacy levels across England has shown that health information is too complex and that 42% of people aged between 16 and 65 years are unable to effectively understand and use everyday health information. This figure rises to 61% when the information also requires numeracy skills. This means between 15 -21 million people across the country are not accessing the information they need to become and stay healthy.
A team of international experts in medicine, public safety and education led by Professor Gill Rowlands, Professor of Health Disparities at LSBU conducted research into the levels of health literacy in England. They collected an extensive sample of health materials commonly used to promote and protect health, manage illness or navigate services – such as health screening posters, labels on medicines.
All sample materials were rated for difficultly in terms of understanding and acting on the information within the materials. The difficulty levels were then compared with the results of a major Government study conducted last year called "The Skills for Life Survey", which interviewed over 7,000 people from a cross-section of the nation's population and assessed their literacy and numeracy skills.
Previous research from the US has shown that people with low health literacy levels are more likely to become ill and are less likely to be able to manage their illness. This new research suggests that this may also be true for our population across England. Two thirds of people who said they were in poor health, had low health literacy skills compared to 41% of people who said their health was good.
Health literacy skills are needed to understand and use information in ways that promote and safeguard good health. We know from research in the US and other countries that poor skills levels such as these have a huge impact and can lead to poor health.
This is a preventable problem, which puts an increasing pressure on an already stretched health service. Our priority now is to look at addressing the challenges uncovered in the research and to develop solutions to ensure health information is more easily understood.
Professor Gill Rowlands, Professor of Health Disparities
The study findings were presented at the Houses of Parliament on 6 December 2012, at an event hosted by the Rt Hon Simon Hughes, MP for Southwark.
The Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Southwark and Bermondsey commented on the importance of this new study: "It is great to see London South Bank University carrying out this hugely important research. I hope that those involved in producing health information take note of the findings. We must improve the way health information is communicated to make sure all patients using the NHS can gain the maximum benefit from the services available."
LSBU also hosted a policy roundtable event at its Southwark campus on Friday 7 December to hear more about the new data and to consider strategies to address how the situation can be improved; ranging from short-term changes that can be made to the way the NHS provides information to longer-term educational reforms.
The research team will be continuing the analysis of the data generated to further examine and explore where the greatest needs are in the population, for example regional variations in health literacy levels were uncovered, which showed that people in London and the North of England are particularly disadvantaged.