NALA’s policy work in health literacy

NALA wants a more literacy-friendly health service which communicates clearly and takes account of possible health literacy and numeracy needs.

Why we need investment in health literacy?

Many people who deal effectively with other aspects of their lives find health information difficult to obtain, understand, or use. Patients are often faced with complex information and treatment decisions. 

International research has shown that patients who are better informed about their health have more effective consultations with their health care provider, are better informed about the medicines they are prescribed, are more likely to comply with their medication and as a result have improved health outcomes.

The EU Health Literacy Survey (2010) showed that 38.8% of Irish people have ‘limited’ health literacy. This has huge implications for the health service and practitioners and makes health literacy a key issue to delivering a quality service. 

Irish research in 2015, 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%).

What have we achieved so far?

NALA has been at the forefront health literacy in Ireland work, making the link between unmet adult literacy needs in Ireland, which are below the OECD average, and the impact this has on people’s health. 

  • NALA conducted research with people with literacy difficulties and they highlighted problems they had understanding health information. They also spoke of difficulties they experienced dealing with health professionals and understanding the language they use. NALA brought these findings to the attention of health policy makers, including politicians, and gradually built awareness of this concept. 
  • Over many years our work has been supported by MSD who encouraged pioneering health practitioners to share their approaches to health literacy through a national awards process. More recently we launched Ireland’s first health literacy quality mark – Crystal Clear – for pharmacies and General Practices. It was developed by NALA, MSD and the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) and is supported by Healthy Ireland. The programme was developed to recognise the critical role pharmacies and general practices play in helping patients understand their health issues and take the practical steps to improve their health.
  • Supported by compelling research, our efforts to get health literacy on the policy map were successful and health literacy is now situated in the new population health framework, Healthy Ireland, which creates opportunity for greater commitment to building health literacy levels across all our efforts to build a healthier Ireland.

What do we need now?

NALA believes that front-line health professionals play a key role in supporting adults with health literacy needs. It is essential they reflect on how they communicate with their patients and check its effectiveness. 

For the general public and patients, we also must change our practice and be more confident in our communication with health professionals. There are three simple 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?

NALA recommends the following: 

  • That health literacy is adequately resourced and addressed as part of a whole-of-government strategy on adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills.  


Ask your doctor

Key research and submissions


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