Health literacy

Health literacy DVD by NALA


Research shows that 45% of people surveyed do not understand the term prognosis.

17% said they had taken the wrong amount of medication on at least one occasion.


Many people find health information difficult to understand and may be putting their health at risk. Recent European research[i] showed that one in four Irish people find it difficult to read and understand health information, for example, instructions on medicine packs or prescriptions.

New Irish research[ii] shows that Irish people want healthcare professionals to use less medical jargon:

  • Two in five (39%)Irish people are calling for doctors, nurses and pharmacists to use more understandable language and less medical jargon. This was followed by speaking less formally (22%) and taking more time to explain things (18%).
  • 17% of people surveyed said they had taken the wrong amount of medication on at least one occasion.
  • People aged 15 - 34 years were least likely to ask a doctor, nurse or pharmacist to explain things they don’t understand.
  • Embarrassment was ranked as the main reason for not seeking more information from a healthcare professional (24%).

“Patients who are better informed about their health have more effective consultations with their health care provider, are more likely to comply with their medication and as a result have improved health outcomes,” says Inez Bailey, CEO, National Adult Literacy Agency.


What is health literacy and numeracy?

Health literacy and numeracy involves a person being able to understand basic health information whether they receive it in writing, in person or over the phone. It also involves a person having the knowledge to understand their options and make informed decisions about their own health.

People working in the healthcare sector play an important part in improving health literacy and numeracy by communicating more clearly and making information and services more accessible to patients.


The Crystal Clear Programme

The research was launched to coincide with the launch of the Crystal Clear Pharmacy and General Practice Programme developed by MSD and the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA). The programme has been developed to recognise the critical role pharmacies and general practices play in helping patients understand their health issues and the steps they need to take to improve their health. A Crystal Clear Mark will be awarded to pharmacies and general practices that take account of the literacy and numeracy needs of their patients and regularly evaluates and consistently improves this. Pharmacies and general practices can apply for this Mark by completing an online audit at

This programme will support pharmacists and general practitioners to improve their services ensuring important health information is better communicated and understood between health practitioners and their patients. This is an investment in better health outcomes for all people in Ireland.

Tackling health jargon through plain English

One way to avoid sometimes unsatisfactory health consultations is to use plain English in written and verbal information. As its focus is on everyday language, plain English helps to reduce the mystery and anxiety that surround certain health conditions.  Shorter sentences, everyday words, a direct and personal tone and well-known images and symbols can contribute to clearer communication to everyone.

What can I do to ensure I understand health information?

Ask me three is a simple set up questions patients should ask of their doctor, nurse or pharmacist during every visit. These questions are:

1.    What is my main problem?

2.    What do I need to do?

3.    Why is it important for me to do this?


Be prepared and ask questions

Sometimes it’s difficult to remember everything you wanted to know or ask your doctor or health care worker. One way to avoid sometimes unsatisfactory health consultations is to be prepared. Write a note of any questions or concerns you have before your appointment so you don’t forget anything important.

And be sure to ask your healthcare provider to explain any complicated language in plain English.

Check your understanding

Often it is useful to check your understanding of what has been said to you by explaining the information back to your healthcare provider. That way they can be sure you understood the discussion and can correct anything you may have misunderstood.

Further information

National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) or phone 01 412 7900


[i] Results from the European Health Literacy Study in 2012 show that 40% of Irish people have limited health literacy

[ii] Results from Irish health literacy research was carried out by Ipsos MRBI in February 2015 among a sample of 1,000 adults aged 15+. To ensure the sample was representative at a national level, weighting was applied across age, gender, social class, and region.




Health Literacy Policy in Ireland

In 2013 the Department of Health published their new policy – ‘Healthy Ireland - A Framework for Improved Health and Wellbeing 2013 – 2025’. The policy recommends action to ‘address and prioritise health literacy in developing future policy, educational and information interventions’ by a number of partners (Reference 3.8, page 25). The partners named include the Department of Health, Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Department of Education and Skills, HSE Directorates, statutory agencies, Community and Voluntary bodies and the private sector.

NALA welcomes this commitment to health literacy by the Department of Health and Government. We are working closely with the Health Service Executive (HSE) and other stakeholders in the health sector to progress this area.


Health Literacy Advisory Panel

In 2010 the National Health Literacy Advisory Panel was set up. It originated from the European Health Literacy Survey (HLS- EU).  The groups consists of members from organisations working in healthcare who are interested in developing health literacy strategies in their own organisation and influencing a national health literacy policy. It is chaired by NALA and meets every two to three months.

The Health Literacy Advisory Panel met three times in 2014. Our main focus was to progress health literacy and make the Irish health service
more literacy-friendly. We drafted a Health Literacy Action Plan which identified seven main stakeholders, including:
• Department of Health,
• Health Service Executive (HSE),
• Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA),
• healthcare professionals,
• healthcare settings including hospitals and primary care centres,
• education and training settings, and
• the general public.


Relevant Government policy papers

Healthy Ireland - A Framework for Improved Health and Wellbeing 2013 - 2025

Department of Health Statement of Strategy 2011- 2014

Changing Cardiovascular Health National Cardiovascular Health Policy 2010 – 2019 - acknowledges health literacy as an issue.

National Intercultural Health Strategy 2007-2012 identifies health literacy as an issue amongst minorities.