Pictograms Support

About Health Literacy

Definition Literacy

Most of us have a general understanding of what literacy means and what being literate entails1.

UNESCO provides a definition of:

“Functioning literacy is the ability to use reading, writing and numeracy skills for effective functioning and development of the individual and the community. A person is literate who can, with understanding, both read and write a short statement on his or her everyday life.”

Source: UNESCO. Understandings of literacy. In: Education for All Global Monitoring Report. ; 2006:147-159. Available from: http://www.unesco.org/education/GMR2006/full/chapt6_eng.pdf

This definition aligns with the traditional understanding of literacy as the tangible skills of reading and writing. However, the concept of literacy is surprisingly complex and multidimensional. The definition of literacy is continuously evolving based on academic research, cultural values and personal experiences1.

The current definition of literacy is shifting away from an individual level (a discrete set of technical skills) and towards a systematic level (a literate environment). As health care providers, this shift means we must re-examine whether our institutions are adapting to the needs our patients in providing a literate environment.

References

  1. UNESCO. Understandings of literacy. In: Education for All Global Monitoring Report. ; 2006:147-159. Available from: http://www.unesco.org/education/GMR2006/full/chapt6_eng.pdf

Worldwide data

As illustrated on the above map, literacy rates varies greatly from one region to another. However, it fails to show the significant amount of variation that can exist within a region. There can be differences in literacy between neighboring cities or even districts due to socio-demographical factors1. To add further complexity, the concept of literacy also has regional specific associations. For example, in Brazil, literacy is defined as “individuals who have complete four grades of schooling.” In India, a literate person is someone “having the ability to read and write in any language” 1.

Based on the 2017/18 Global Education Monitoring Reports, worldwide adult literacy rates is on the rise, increasing from 81.5% to 86% between 2000 to 20162. However, rates are still below 61% in low income countries. Developed countries are not immune to the issue of health literacy. There is evidence that literacy and numeracy levels may be declining in high-income countries such as Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden. This is mostly attributed to population aging, decrease ability of post-secondary graduates and reduced reading at work 2.

Adult literacy rate by country, 2016

Source: UNESCO. Literacy Rates Are on the Rise but Millions Remain Illiterate.; 2016.
http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs38-50th-anniversary-of-international-literacy-day-literacy-rates-are-on-the-rise-but-millions-remain-illiterate-2016-en.pdf.

References

  1. UNESCO. Understandings of literacy. In: Education for All Global Monitoring Report. ; 2006:147-159. Available from: http://www.unesco.org/education/GMR2006/full/chapt6_eng.pdf
  2. UNESCO. Global Education Monitoring Report. Paris, France; 2016. Available from: http://gem-report-2016.unesco.org/en/home/.