Improving health literacy

Health literacy helps people to take care of their own health, avoid illness and to have a better understanding of treatment options if they do become ill. It also makes it easier for them to benefit from the medical care that is available to them.

At a glance

  • Health literacy refers to a person’s ability to find, understand and evaluate information about their own health and to apply this information to their individual life situation.
  • Digital health literacy is the ability to find and use digital health information.
  • Having a good level of health literacy can have a positive effect on health and quality of life.
  • When looking for health information on the internet, cited sources, a website’s “Legal Notice”, as well as possible financial interests that may be relevant all indicate the quality of the information provided.
A woman sits at a laptop with an information sheet in her hand.

What is health literacy?

Health literacy refers to people’s ability to manage information that relates directly to their health. This means understanding health-related information and knowing where to find such information. Many people think first and foremost of printed information or information published on websites. However, other important sources of information include advice centers, self-help organizations and, of course, direct conversations with doctors and nurses.

These days, it’s usually easy to find a lot of information. However, it can be more difficult to choose which information is relevant, reliable and of a high quality and to understand this information. Some of the health-related information available online cannot be considered credible and is of questionable quality. This isn’t always easily spotted.

Ultimately, a good level of health literacy is essential to being able to find and understand the right health-related information. It also helps people to apply the knowledge they acquire to their daily lives and helps them to get the most out of a visit to the doctor, either for themselves or a loved one.

People’s health literacy needs change depending on their circumstances – for example, moving to a new country or being newly diagnosed with an illness.

Patients and the general public also need a certain level of health literacy in order to understand the institutions and structures of the healthcare system.

What is meant by health literacy?

Digital technologies are increasingly becoming an essential part of our daily lives. In the area of health, there are many digital technologies that improve medical care. Digital health literacy is the ability to access and make use of digital health resources. Examples include telemedicine services, the electronic patient record (ePA) and digital health apps (DiGA) (“apps on prescription”).

Why is health literacy important?

If you are well informed about your health and can apply your knowledge to everyday life, you can play an active role in your own healthcare. For example, if you know why oral hygiene is so important, you will brush your teeth regularly and are likely to have fewer cavities. The same applies to dealing with illness – if a person understands the reasoning behind a treatment for a chronic disease, they may be more prepared to follow the course of treatment consistently over the long term.

In this way, health literacy helps improve quality of life.

Having a good level of health literacy can have a positive effect on health and quality of life.

It is also known that a low level of health literacy is often associated with an unhealthy lifestyle – for example, with not eating a healthy diet and not getting enough exercise. In addition, people with poor health literacy feel less healthy, tend to be more overweight, are absent from work more frequently due to illness and are more likely to need to use the services of family doctors, hospitals and emergency services.

People who are well informed can play an active role in decisions affecting their health. These days, treatment plans tend to be decided upon by doctors and patients in consultation, rather than by medical professionals alone. A good level of health literacy facilitates joint decision-making.

What health information is used by people in Germany?

A huge volume of digital health information is available and is used by many people – around 70 percent of people use online sources when they have questions about health. However, it’s not always easy to tell whether information on the internet is of a high quality. Which is why, in one survey, over two-thirds of people interviewed said that they would consult a doctor first if they had any urgent questions about health. Only around one-fifth of respondents said that they would look for the answer online first.

How health literate are people in Germany?

A study of health literacy in Germany indicates that over half of the population experience difficulty in relation to health information. Although the coronavirus pandemic has put health very much in focus, health literacy has improved only slightly as a result.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the internet generation of younger people aged 14 to 17 didn’t fare much better in the study – most of these said that they had difficulty evaluating the quality of health information and making decisions affecting their own health.

The gesund.bund.de health portal was created to make it easier for all citizens to access reliable health information online.

The website of the Federal Center for Health Education (“Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung”) also provides answers to many health-related questions.

How to tell if online health information is reliable

Around three-quarters of Germans surveyed said that they encounter significant difficulties in evaluating digital health information and find it difficult to tell whether a website is reliable and neutral. It is therefore useful to know how to identify high-quality information.

The German Network of Evidence-Based Medicine (“Netzwerk Evidenzbasierte Medizin e.V.”) sets out criteria for high-quality health information in its position paper on good practice in health information. The paper emphasizes the point that reliable health information should always be free of advertising.

In addition, health information must always be based on evidence. In other words, online articles about health should always be based on scientific findings – such as research demonstrating the effectiveness and the safety of a treatment method. Cited sources provide information in this regard.

As well as presenting factually correct information in a way that is easily understood by users, those who create and publish health-related content online must also be transparent and disclose details of how they are funded.

This information should be included in a website’s “Legal Notice”. Other relevant information can normally be found on its “About us” page. This page should also specify how frequently the information is updated.

What is evidence-based medicine?

The following video explains what evidence-based medicine is and how it is used to make treatment decisions.

This and other videos can also be found on YouTube.

Watch now

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Where can I find high-quality digital health information?

Alongside the gesund.bund.de health portal and the website of the Federal Center for Health Education, there are many organizations that provide high-quality online health information that is easily understood and presented in an interesting way.

The German Health Competence Network (“Deutsche Netzwerk Gesundheitskompetenz e.V.”) provides an overview of providers of health information that meet certain quality criteria.

For specific medical questions, decision-making tools can help people make decisions on treatment methods.

Statutory health insurance funds and private health insurance providers also offer a wide range of information, advice and resources to answer any questions that members and policy holders may have in relation to health and digital health literacy – such as step-by-step guides to installing apps and using electronic patient records.

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