Health literacy in the digital age

  • Posted on 21.02.2019

Health literacy in the digital age

Lauraine Harrington

Lauriane Harrington

Vice Chair of the Committee for Health Literacy and Self-Care at the European Health Parliament

Ivana Paccoud

Ivana Paccoud

Member of the Committee for Health Literacy and Self-Care at the European Health Parliament


We live at a time when there is more information about health than ever before. And in this digital age there are more smartphones than doctors per person in Europe. Health information is out there in droves, and it is conveniently accessible online 24 hours a day.

But can citizens find, understand, assess and apply health information to improve their health outcomes? According to the European Health Literacy Survey published in 2015, not quite. And there are disparities within and between member states.  The survey found that 26.9% of respondents in Bulgaria report inadequate levels of health literacy, versus 1.8% in the Netherlands.

Health literacy, defined as an ability to find, understand, critically appraise and successfully apply health information in order to improve one’s well-being, is a key determinant of health. Research has shown that individuals with lower health literacy are less knowledgeable about diseases. They also adhere less to preventative measures and have higher hospitalisation rates.

If you’re like us, you’ve probably asked your search engine more questions about your health than to your healthcare provider. But how accurate is this information? Did the reader understand the complex medical language?

One exciting avenue to improve health literacy is to provide a framework for the digital communication of health information. By mitigating the dissemination of inaccurate health information online and by improving the user-friendliness of online resources, citizens will be able to navigate the jungle of health information, understand important health topics, and be equipped to play an active role in their own health and in their local healthcare system.

The ubiquity, adaptability and affordability of digital tools to improve health literacy is very appealing, but support is needed to reduce barriers to their use. Like many new tools, digital media come with benefits and limitations.

Using digital media to communicate health information to improve health literacy


–       Easy access and ubiquitous if online

–       Information is direct to patient, therefore promotes patient centricity

–       Artificial intelligence could be used to tailor information to individual needs

–       Easy, fast and affordable way to deliver interventions


–       Some people may not be able to use digital technologies

–       Potential patient and healthcare professional scepticism

–       Data protection and privacy concerns

This year, a group of young professionals from across the health sector is participating in the 4th Edition of the European Health Parliament. Our Committee on Health Literacy and Self-Care aims to deliver policy recommendations to improve health literacy and, as a result, the health and wellbeing of European citizens.

Our work starts by raising awareness of the opportunity to improve health literacy, with a special focus on digital health communication. We believe this is a powerful tool to achieve Europe’s health objectives across all demographics and we look forward to reporting our recommendations in April 2019.


The blog was written on behalf of the Committee for Health Literacy & Self-Care, European Health Parliament.

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