Improving health literacy in education – why it is important we make the grade

By Alex Teckkam, Codes of Practice Assessor at PAGB

The years in spent education are some of the most important of your life. This is the time where you should learn the skills, knowledge and confidence to be able to care for yourself and others in the wider world. But despite the packed curriculums, there are concerns that young people leaving the education system are lacking the health literacy to help them do just that – look after themselves.

Health literacy is key in empowering people to confidently make healthy life choices. Without the ability to obtain, process and understand health materials, is it really surprising that people struggle to choose appropriate NHS services? How can we expect individuals to take steps to prevent long term conditions, or to know when to or when not to visit the GP, if they do not have the skills to confidently access or use health information or services?

So how big is this problem in the UK?

Well, recent research suggests that between 43% and 61% of the working population in England do not have the knowledge to understand and apply health information[1]. In 2015 we know that an estimated 42% of 18-24 year olds were recurrent users of A&E, despite recent NHS campaigns aimed at reducing A&E attendance.

We also know that low health literacy has a significant negative impact on health. People with low levels of functional health literacy are more likely to lead unhealthy lifestyles, to suffer from long-term health conditions and have a higher mortality. It also affects a person’s ability to confidently interact with NHS services or staff. This is of growing importance, with an ever-increasing emphasis on shared decision making and patient participation within the NHS. It is clear that people need functioning health literacy in order to make confident decisions about their own health.

This low level of health literacy has an impact on the NHS as well as the individual. It is estimated that the issue costs 3% to 5% of the annual UK health budget[2], with a £2.3 billion spend alone resulting from people using an inappropriate NHS service for their self treatable conditions[3].  With the growing pressure on NHS resources, it is clear we cannot afford to ignore this problem.

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