Post from a HEE supported student on the importance of health literacy.

From students on the Health Librarianship module for Library and Information Studies at University College London (UCL).

As part of their assignment, we asked the students to write reflective pieces looking at a topic they had enjoyed from the course. Here is a fith piece for you to read.

The Importance of health literacy

A topic found to be of great interest in the second half of the Health Librarianship module teaching was that of the importance of health literacy.

Health literacy concerns the ability that a person has to understand information that they have been given to make informed decisions involving their health (NHS Digital Service Manual, 2021). This is necessary for the understanding required for the concept of shared decision-making being promoted by the NHS, in which clinical staff provide options for a patient so that a treatment plan can be decided collaboratively (NHS, 2023).

Statistics show that in England around 41% of adults between the ages of 16 and 65 do not possess the literacy skills necessary to interpret health information, with 61% of the same group also struggling with their numerical skills (Rowland et al., 2015). This has been further highlighted through the COVID-19 pandemic where education in health literacy was shown to be necessary for halting the spread of communicable disease (Paakkari and Okan, 2020).

The role of the Patient Information Specialist Librarian in the library service has been developed to target health literacy inequality through education and training. These specialists directly provide patients and their families with knowledge surrounding health information related queries, whilst also supporting healthcare professionals to effectively deliver information in a way that is accessible to all and jargon free (NHS Knowledge and Library Services, 2023).

However, for this to be successful, it relies on their skills to be used by clinical and non-clinical staff that have regular patient interaction and for library services to be developed and promoted targeting this problem. This must be supported by promotion and advocacy from the knowledge and information service, as it can be delivered in conjunction with the A Million Decisions campaign for informing clinical decisions (CILIP, 2023).

An example of a health literacy service can be found in the NHS Idea Bank in relation to University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (Booth, 2022).

To summarise, a session was developed by the library for junior doctors discussing what health literacy is. It utilised activities that simulated the difficulty patients may have surrounding understanding health information, therefore giving junior doctors practical experience with appropriate solutions. The training has since been adapted to be delivered to a range of clinical and non-clinical staff to increase their efforts' outreach.

The role that the library and knowledge service plays in reducing health inequalities through improved health literacy is key as they are best placed to show where to access information for making informed decisions through their literacy searching and teaching skills (Gilroy, 2019).

Even though it can be difficult at times to reach those that can benefit from the library service due to the lack of time that clinical professionals have, the training in health literacy can give clinical professionals more time through improving the self-management skills of their patients (Geboers et al., 2016).

All that is discussed above proves the importance of the health librarian, and to summarise, through their work in improving health literacy they can have a wide and important impact. Health literacy is invaluable, and the library service is in a great position to improve it in both clinical and public settings


Naoise Standing


Ms Gill Young


Knowledge and Library Services Development Manager - Northwest