National Women's Health Policy

Health literacy

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

Health literacy describes 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). 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.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (2006) showed that 60 per cent of Australians have less than adequate levels of literacy and health literacy, and only 6 per cent of the Australian population has ‘high’ health literacy levels.

As illustrated in Figure 1, for Australian women, health literacy levels differ according to age, with women over 65 years showing the lowest levels. As women in this group are also the highest users of a range of health services, it is likely that many of these women will have problems understanding written and verbal advice from health sources and being able to successfully navigate the health system to obtain appropriate services.

These difficulties increase where other factors such as being from a culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) background are also impacting on health literacy. While 17.4 per cent of 65–74 year olds in the broader population have ‘adequate’ health literacy levels, only 3.4 per cent of CALD individuals in the same age group have adequate health literacy levels.

graph showing australian health literacy by age (women) australia 2006

In addition to health literacy, there are a number of socially-based determinants of health that impact on Australian women’s ability to control their own health or experience health equity across the lifespan. Issues such as the impact of limited resources, exposure to violence, belonging to a marginalised group and structural and political inequity are examined in detail in Chapter Five.