Health Literacy as a Complex Practice

Judy Hunter
Margaret Franken


As attention to health literacy grows as an area for policy intervention,policy discourse continues to draw on skills deficit and patient compliance, buttressed by the dominant political discourse of individual responsibility. But for patients, the health domain is interwoven with linguistic challenges, significant affective issues, underlying cultural dimensions, political and economic exigencies, variable access to resources, and cognitive and situated complexity. From these perspectives, this article reports on findings of an ongoing study of health literacy demands in the Midlands region of the North Island of New Zealand, an area of high ethnic and socio-economic diversity.The study focuses on patients with diabetes and cardiovascular disease - two chronic areas strongly associated with ‘failure to care’ and identifed as having reached epidemic proportions. It analyses work to date:health professionals’ conceptions of and responses to perceived patients’ health literacy needs, and health information documents for patients. Implications of the study support the need for improvement in language and literacy skills among patients, but also the recognition of complexity and a collective responsibility for effective health communication.

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