How can we be information literate about health?

Dr. Marc Forster, Health Sector Representative on the CILIP Information Literacy Group committee, discusses “health literacy” and how to recognise reliable sources of information.

With a vast wealth of information on health and medical care and conditions available on the web, how can we deal with it effectively and successfully? Whether a medical professional, a person with a diagnosed medical conditions or a member of their family, or an individual who wants to avoid the trap of panicky self-diagnosis, it is very difficult to know where to turn and how to judge quality and sufficiency of information.

How can we be information literate about health? Although information literacy is still not widely understood as a concept in the wider world, medical and health professionals have used the term ‘Health literacy’ to mean essentially this for some time. It is defined as ‘the personal characteristics and social resources needed for individuals and communities to access, understand, appraise and use information and services to make decisions about health'(WHO, 2015). With ‘personal characteristics’, a constructivist outlook has found its way into the definition; perhaps due to its widespread use as an approach in health and medical education. A health literate person is someone who shows a competence in dealing with health information.

Health literacy helps people with serious illnesses feel more in control of their future at a time when they may feel more powerless than they have ever done before. To be ‘literate’ in any context is the ability to make sense of things; to feel that a clear and logical path will suggest itself and the future can be understood. This can be of enormous comfort both to the ill person and to their families, as well as a means of empowering them to contribute to any discussion about their treatment and care.

What are the main characteristics of a reliable source of information?

  1. A recognised professional source – a professional body or national/international organisation of accepted repute.
  2. Research evidence based – there is an understanding that care and treatment must be underpinned by research evidence of effectiveness.
  3. Disinterested approach – not promoting a product, philosophy or approach outside the evidence-based mainstream.

NHS Choices is a good example.

An understanding of the value of these characteristics, and the increasing ability to recognise their presence or lack, indicates an increasing level of health literacy. The ability to judge the value of information on the web must also include an awareness of the limitations of self-assessment and when to call on a medical professional. The health literate person understands their own competency in both a positive and a negative sense.

Find out more about the CILIP Information Literacy Group

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