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Health literacy

What is health literacy?

Recognition of health literacy as an important part of health care first arose in the United States in the 1970s. Since that period, the concept of health literacy has evolved and become refined, recognising that health literacy exists as an opportunity to improve individuals' understanding of and approach to their healthcare. A definition used commonly in New Zealand is:

"The degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services in order to make informed and appropriate health decisions."

— Kickbusch et al., 2005; Kārero Mārama, 2010

It is the health system's responsibility to not only provide the correct information at the correct level, but to engage with people receiving the information to ensure they can access, understand and act on that information (Workbase NZ).

Health literacy is an area in which pharmacists can work with individuals to ensure information, understanding and application of knowledge can be tailored to each person’s specific needs.

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Why is health literacy important?

International research shows clearly that poor health literacy is linked to poor health status. The Ministry of Health published a report in 2010 (Kārero Mārama), which was based on a survey conducted in New Zealand in 2006 (adult literacy and life skills). Results showed that:

  • 56% of the adult population have poor health literacy skills
  • The largest proportion of the population who have poor health literacy skills are Pākehā
  • There are a number of specific groups with poor health literacy (eg Māori, Pacific, English as a second language, younger people, older people, those who are unemployed)

It is really important to note that poor health literacy is not interchangeable with low intelligence. Everyone will experience poor health literacy at some time in their lives. This makes sense, given the complexity of information associated with healthcare.

New Zealand's statistics in this area are very similar to those of Australia, and better than Canada and the United States of America (Workbase NZ).

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'Understand Your Medicines' clinics

The 'Understand Your Medicines' clinics are provided as an opportunity for patients with queries about their medicines and healthcare to be freely able to meet with a registered pharmacist to discuss those queries. We are not restricted by any set procedure or topic, rather are simply available for as long as necessary (within the clinic times) to answer any questions.

We ask that each patient sign a consent form, providing details of their doctor and community pharmacy, in case a referral is deemed appropriate. If students are attending the clinic, patients will be asked if they consent to meeting with a student in conjunction with the pharmacist.

Three Step Health Literacy Model

We use the Three Step Health Literacy Model described in teaching resources from (and used with permission of) the National Medication Safety Programme.

In brief, the Three Step Model includes:

  1. Find out what the patient knows
  2. Build health literacy skills and knowledge
  3. Check you were clear (if not, go back to Step 2 and revisit)

National Medication Safety Programme (Health Quality & Safety Commission)

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Volunteer at our clinics

If you are a registered pharmacist and are available to attend clinics on a voluntary basis, please contact us for further information. We'd love to hear from you.

Contact the School of Pharmacy

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