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Clinical guidelines

SNAP Guide

Health literacy

Health literacy can be defined as the capacity to acquire, understand and use information for health.39 It is important because it influences how patients use health services, how they communicate with providers and how they manage their own lifestyle.40 Low health literacy is common in the Australian population and associated with low income and educational attainment, as well as with higher risk behaviours.41 There are a number of screening tools that can be used to detect health literacy levels in these patients.42

More effective communication with patients with low health literacy involves:43

  • prioritising key points
  • using specific plain language (not medical terms)
  • using graphic images
  • encouraging questions
  • arranging follow-up.

‘Teach-back’ is a technique in which patients are asked to use their own words to explain what they have understood via education or information they have received.44 Communication and patient education materials also need to be tailored to the language and culture of the patient.


  1. Nutbeam D. Building health literacy in Australia. Med J Aust 2009;191(10):525–6.
  2. von Wagner C, Steptoe A, Wolf MS, Wardle J. Health literacy and health actions: a review and a framework from health psychology. Health Educ Behav 2009;36(5):860–77.
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Health literacy. Canberra: ABS; 2006.
  4. Chew LD, Griffin JM, Partin MR, et al. Validation of screening questions for limited health literacy in a large VA outpatient population. J Gen Intern Med 2008;23(5):561–6.
  5. Royal College of General Practitioners. Health Literacy: Report from an RCGP-led literacy workshop. Available at [Accessed 9 August 2014].
  6. DeWalt D, Callhan L, Hawk V, et al. Health literacy universal precautions toolkit. Rockville: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; 2010.


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