Background Info

Health literacy is one of the social determinants of health recognised as an important factor in improving population’s health. Health literacy is related to different factors, such as the educational level, socio-economic status, access to health services, and to a variety of cultural, historical and political factors. Vulnerable populations include the ageing population, minority groups, migrants,  the unemployed , socially isolated people and people with chronic mental and/or physical health conditions. 

In order to get more information on health literacy issues in the European Union, the EU financed the European Health Literacy Survey, which published its results in 2012. Nearly half of the population in Europe faces inadequate to problematic health literacy competencies.

Often, health literacy problems increase with age, the survey showed. For the ageing population the “use it or lose it” counts: reading abilities decline to typically three to five grade levels below the last year of school completed. 

Some studies find that up to 5% of healthcare costs are directly related to health literacy problems, with more admissions, lower adherence to prescribed medicines, more complications of treatment and higher utilisation of services.


Improving health literacy will help older people remain active and healthy, and to participate more in society. Improving health literacy will contribute to reduction of healthcare costs, for example reduction of utilisation of expensive hospital services (e.g. by reducing readmissions).

Health literacy is a context-dependent competency. Modern health systems require increasing levels of health literacy, e.g. in self-management of diabetes or dosage regulation of thrombolytic medicines. Some countries in Europe are more advanced in self-management and in patient involvement in medical decision-making. They may have advanced legislation with regard to informed consent on medical treatment, and therefore health literacy requirements will be higher. 

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