by Joanna Ptolomey

Literacy – are we really getting to the crux of the problem 

If you work in the world of information and libraries then information accessibility, findability, and the understanding and use of information forms a lot of the work we do. We know that information literacy is a fundamental to being able to operate and thrive in your society and community.

Last month the Scottish government launched a new health literacy action plan to support people in developing the knowledge, skills and confidence to be active partners in their own care. Person centred healthcare is the number one plan for health provision in the UK now. Whilst I applaud these moves I have misgivings about separating health literacy with literacy in general. It may make sense to health providers and policy makers, but will it help communities right where they need it? Are we spreading the resources too thin?

A few years back I contributed a chapter to the book, Government information in the 21st century, discussing information services, accessibility and the digital divide. I make the point in the chapter that good basic literacy standards in people affect many parts of the life of the citizen. There is enough evidence to support not just the quality of life of a citizen, but how long you may live for. Health literacy, or as I call it literacy, is usually lowest amongst the most vulnerable members of communities – the lower educated, elderly, and racial minorities. This is the same in Europe and is North America.

A further comment I made in the chapter was the race to provide services on a ‘digital by default’ basis. There is a good economic argument for this, but the attitude ‘everyone is online right’ just does not hold true. Accessibility to computers is still a real problem, and the cost of buying and paying for a provider is outwith the reach of some still.

A recent Guardian article asks ‘who will be left behind’ and again it is the most vulnerable people and communities. In the UK the local public libraries are often touted as the saviour, but with public library closures a plenty and strict cost savings budgets they are hardly the answer.

Whilst testing a beta version of local health information platform in local public libraries recently I got first hand experience of the problems of some literacy issues. Booking is very important to get computer access and the time is limited. And there is the problem of people who do not use the public library and can’t get the skills.

It is 4 years since I wrote that book chapter and only very recently I saw the same issues facing many community citizens. So whilst I was talking about accessing health information digitally they had more pressing basic problems in making sense and understanding the content. This is not a health literacy issue, this is a general literacy issue and I do wonder that not enough attention is being paid to that.

atg_JPphotoJoanna Ptolomey is a freelance information specialist who specializes in how people/organisation/communities find, use, share and manage information in health.  In particular, developing technology platforms, via aliss.org, as well as facilitating and supporting the journey of change, developing supporting educational material.