Monthly Archives: November 2014

Adult literacy, numeracy and health care

Below is an opinion piece by WEA Director for Education Ann Walker from her blog at http://annwalkerwea.wordpress.com/

Around 5 million adults in the UK lack functional literacy. According to the charity National Numeracy, almost 17 million people in the UK don’t have the numeracy skills necessary to reach the lowest grade at GCSE. Poor reading, writing and number skills are often discussed in the context of employability but recent research in the USA by Sharon K Long, Adele Shartzer and Mary Politi shows the impact of low levels of self-reported literacy and numeracy on obtaining and using private health insurance coverage. Their work, reported here, highlights how important these skills are in navigating health services and official systems, especially in a world that is increasingly reliant on independent online access by service users.

It also shows some of the risks that might arise from increasing privatisation of health services in the UK.

Health lit & num

The researchers found that navigating changes in the health care system is challenging for many people, especially for adults with limited literacy and numeracy. This should not come as a surprise, but there is a lot of action needed to bridge communication gaps between the public and health care providers.

Poverty is a strong contributor to health inequality but levels of  income and functional skills are linked.

The use of words and numbers can create barriers. Medical jargon can be unfamiliar and intimidating. Phlebotomy, oncology, obstetrics and other hospital department names are not obvious to the uninitiated. Leaflets in medication packs can be written in difficult language and many aspects of health and wellbeing, including dosage instructions for tablets, depend on literacy and numeracy.

Adding the US scenario of decision-making about health insurance is a further level of complexity, especially for people trying to balance difficult financial choices, but it is a level of expertise needed increasingly in many other everyday situations.

There is a strong need to invest in adult education that doesn’t stigmatise people who need to improve their functional skills and service providers also have a responsibility to make information as accessible and understandable as possible.

Joint working between health care providers, public service providers and adult educators might be part of a solution?

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