Multicultural Health Week

The 2018 theme for Multicultural Health Week is health literacy and CALD communities.

Multicultural Health Week 2018 will take place 3-9 September

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is a critical element to enable people to exert control over their health and their health care.

Health literacy has been defined as, “a means to enabling individuals to exert greater control over their health and the range of personal, social and environmental determinants of health”[1].

This includes the ability of a person to understand essential health information that is required for them to successfully make use of all elements of the health system (preventive, diagnostic, curative and palliative services).[2]

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care separates health literacy into two components:

·   Individual health literacy and the

·   Health literacy environment.

Individual health literacy is the skills, knowledge, motivation and capacity of a consumer to access, understand, appraise and apply information to make effective decisions about health and health care, and take appropriate action.

The health literacy environment is the infrastructure, policies, processes, materials, people and relationships that make up the healthcare system, which affect the ways in which consumers access, understand, appraise and apply health-related information and services.[3]

Nutbeam’s model of health literacy[4],[5] goes one step further, breaking individual health literacy into three levels:

·        Functional health literacy: this includes basic reading, writing and literacy skills, as well as the knowledge of health conditions and health systems

·        Interactive health literacy: this includes communicative and social skills that can be used to derive meaning from different forms of communication, and to apply new information to changing circumstances

·        Critical health literacy: this includes higher level cognitive skills and social skills required to critically analyse information, and to use this information to exert greater control over life events and situations through individual and collective action to address the social, economic and environmental determinants of health.

Why is health literacy important?

“Health literacy lies at the heart of a person being able to take control of their own health care through making informed health decisions, seeking appropriate and timely care and managing the processes of illness and wellness.”[6]

Health information can be complex, technical or complicated vocabulary and ambiguous. Information can often be difficult to obtain and read, let alone comprehend. When the stressors of caring for a loved one or oneself are added to the need to navigate the health system, people can feel alone, confused and distraught.

Research has clearly linked directly and indirectly low levels of health literacy a with poorer health outcomes, poor health care utilization, increased barriers to care and early death around the world [2][3],[4],[5],[6],[7]. Further more, it has been suggested that increasing health literacy is likely to reduce health costs through the prevention of illness and chronic disease and have additional broader impacts through the labour market[8].

[1] Nutbeam, D. (2008). The evolving concept of health literacy. Social Science & Medicine, 67(12), 2072-2078.

[2] Department of Health (2011). Health Literacy: National Women’s Health Policy, accessed from

[3] Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (2014). Health literacy: taking action to improve safety and quality. Sydney.

[4] Nutbeam, D. (2008). The evolving concept of health literacy. Social Science & Medicine, 67(12), 2072-2078.

[5]  Nutbeam, D. (2015). Defining, measuring and improving health literacy, Journal of Health Evaluation and Promotion 42: 450-455

[6] Department of Health (2011). Health Literacy: National Women’s Health Policy, accessed from

[7] Pleasant, A. (2014). Advancing health literacy measurement: a pathway to better health and health system performance, Journal of Health Communication, 19, 1481-1496.

[8]DeWalt, D.A., Berkman, N.D., Sheridan, S.L., Lohr, K.N., & Pignone, M. (2004). Literacy and health outcomes: a systematic review of the literature. J Gen Intern Med. 19:1228–39.

[9] DeWalt, D.A., & Pignone, M.P. (2005). Reading is fundamental: the relationship between literacy and health. Arch Intern Med. 165:1943–4.

[10] Wolf, M.S., Feinglass, J.M., Carrion, V., Gazmararian, J., & Baker D. (2006). Literacy and mortality among Medicare enrollees. J Gen Intern Med. ;21:81.

[11] Sudore R.L., Schillinger, D,. Satterfield, S., et al. (2006). Limited literacy is associated with mortality in the elderly: the health, aging, and body composition study. J Gen Intern Med. 21:806–12.

[12] Weiss, B.D. (2005). “Epidemiology of Low Health Literacy,” Understanding Health Literacy: Implications for Medicine and Public Health, J.G. Schwartzberg, J.B. VanGeest and C.C. Wang (eds.) (United States: American Medical Association).

[13] Health literacy in Canada: A Healthy understanding, (2008), Canadian Council on Learning, Ottawa.

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