Health literacy: what is it and why does it matter?

Cuttsy+Cuttsy | 26 November 2020

October was health literacy month however, health literacy should be considered all year round. So we want to continue to shine a light on the importance of making health information understandable for all. At Cuttsy+Cuttsy, this is something very close to our hearts. 

But what do we mean when we say health literacy? The National Health Literacy Plan defines it as:

"People having enough knowledge, understanding, skills and confidence to use health information, to be active partners in their care, and to navigate health and social care systems" 

The principles of health literacy affect everyone 

The Literacy Trust report that 1 in every 6 adults in England have ‘very poor’ overall literacy skills.1 But even people with ‘average’ general literacy skills may find health information complicated and difficult to fully understand. A 2015 study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found that 43% of adults struggle with text-based health information. This figure rises to 61% if numbers are included.2

At its core, health literacy is the ability to obtain, understand and apply information in order to make health-related decisions. And whilst that does include reading, it is actually much more than this. It also extends to listening, numeracy, analytical and decision-making skills. 

Why is this a public health problem?

Unfortunately, poor health literacy is a considerable public health problem as it can seriously impact patient outcomes. Real life examples of how a low level of health literacy can affect patient’s health are written in a 2016 blog for the NHS and include:

  • a lady who thought her ‘positive’ cancer diagnosis was a good thing and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t getting better
  • a lady who sprayed her inhaler on her neck because she had been told to “spray it on her throat”. Nobody had checked whether she realised she had to open her mouth and inhale

This shows the impact that a low level of health literacy can have on a person’s health. Switch that around, however, and there is evidence to show that a good level of health literacy is associated with: 1,3

  • reduced use of medical services
  • greater level of preventive care 
  • better management of long-term illnesses
  • reduced mortality in older people

Couple these benefits with people being better informed, alongside being able to make decisions regarding their own health and wellbeing, and it is clear just how important health literacy is. And just how much of a priority it should be when communicating with patients. 

That is why at Cuttsy+Cuttsy we are passionate about health literacy and its impact on patient understanding. It would be fair to say that it’s intrinsic to everything we do. We believe that when developing patient materials, it’s our job to help empower people to feel confident in making decisions about their health. It’s more than just providing the information – it’s about giving patients power.


  1. National Literacy Trust. Available at Accessed October 2020
  2. Rowlands G, et al. Br J Gen Pract 2015; DOI: 10.3399/bjgp15X685285
  3. DeWalt D, et al. J Gen Intern Med. 2004 Dec;19(12):1228-39. doi: 10.1111/j.1525-1497.2004.40153.x