New research into health literacy levels across England has shown that health information is too complex.

This is according to a new study by London South Bank University, and funded by MSD, which shows that 43% of people aged between 16 and 65 years are unable to effectively understand and use everyday health information. 

There are just over 34 million adults in England aged 16 – 65 year, meaning that between 15 and 21 million people of working age across the country may not be able to understand and use the information they need to look after their health.

Around two-thirds of people (67%) who said they were in poor health, also had low health literacy skills, whereas only 36% of people in good health had low literacy levels.

This is the first study to examine health literacy levels across England and to explore the likely impact on the population in everyday situations. 

Gill Rowlands, Professor of health disparities, at London South Bank University who led the research team, said: “Health literacy skills are needed to understand and use information in ways that promote and safeguard good health. We know from research in the USA and other countries that poor skills levels such as these have a huge impact and can lead to poor health. This is a preventable problem, which puts an increasing pressure on an already stretched health service. Our priority now is to look at addressing the challenges uncovered in the research and to develop solutions to ensure health information is more easily understood.”

Previous research from the USA has shown that people with low health literacy levels have poorer health, are less likely to engage in cancer screening programmes and are less likely to be able to manage illnesses such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and asthma. This new research from London South Bank University suggests that this may also be true for the population across England. 

The report’s authors collected a wide-ranging sample of health materials commonly used to promote and protect health, manage illness or navigate services – such as health screening posters, labels on medicines, letters from GPs, and road safety information - and interviewed around 7,000 people in England. 

MSD and health literacy

MSD, the pharma company who sponsored this research, says it has been advocating health literacy as an unmet health need for more than ten years. 

The firm has supported a number of recent initiatives including the Health Literacy Award in Ireland, the Swiss Health Literacy Survey in Switzerland and the European Health Literacy Survey conducted by the University of Maastricht in 2011.