Improving families' literacy through tailored local support can make them healthier and a pioneering partnership approach to health literacy should become a fundamental part of public health strategies, our new research concludes.
Our report, called Understanding the role of literacy in public health, found that literacy is directly related to health because it enables people to understand and act on information about their own health, treating ailments effectively and preventing disease. The research highlighted that families with low literacy are more likely to be in poor health and improving literacy skills can empower individuals to take control of their own health, leading to a reductions in health inequalities and the pressure on public services.
The National Literacy Trust has pioneered an innovative partnership-based local approach to raise literacy levels in areas where low literacy is entrenched, intergenerational and having a serious impact on people's lives. The three National Literacy Trust Hubs in Middlesbrough, Bradford and Peterborough enable public services to work together in new ways with private and voluntary sector organisations to provide literacy support to specific target audiences as well as the wider community. The partnerships made with health workers through our National Literacy Trust Hubs show the ability of a shared public health and literacy agenda to unlock the potential of services using existing resources to improve people's health literacy.
The first National Literacy Trust Hub in Middlesbrough has worked closely with the Public Health Department at Middlesbrough Council for the last three years to develop a shared public health and literacy agenda. This has led to new support for the families of premature babies in the neonatal unit at James Cook University Hospital in partnership with the premature baby charity Bliss and the hospital. Literacy support has been provided in the form of free book packs distributed to parents and siblings to encourage them to read to babies during the long hours spent beside their incubators. Nurses have been trained to provide literacy messages to parents and a library has been set up in the neonatal unit's coffee lounge.
Our research emphasised the importance of the home learning environment in embedding literacy into daily life from a young age. The report cited a previous National Literacy Trust paper which found that people with low literacy are up to 18 times more likely to take their prescriptions incorrectly, are significantly less likely to understand the symptoms of a medical condition such as diabetes or asthma and are more likely to rate their health as 'very poor' than people with better literacy skills.
The potential of increasing health literacy is also being realised through the National Literacy Trust's new partnership with Boots Opticians which highlights the link between eye health and literacy. Children with low levels of literacy are more likely to have an uncorrected vision need, which inevitably impacts on their enjoyment of reading.
Literacy skills are a fundamental part of empowering people to stay healthy by preventing disease and taking prescribed treatment correctly and should be included as an integral part of any public health strategy.
The National Literacy Trust charity receives no government funding. We depend on support to carry out our vital work to equip disadvantaged young people with literacy fit for employment and life. To find out more, visit: www.literacytrust.org.uk/donate