Health literacy has been a prominent issue on the agenda of the World Health Organization (WHO) for almost two decades. WHO recently established a strong global mandate for public policy action on health literacy by positioning it as one of three key pillars for achieving sustainable development and health equity in the Shanghai Declaration on Health Promotion. Several countries have national health literacy policies, with many others expected to develop them in the immediate future. It is, therefore, timely to examine current policy approaches to health literacy. The purpose of this study was to analyze a selection of existing policy documents for their strengths, limitations and themes, and offer observations about their potential to improve health literacy and health outcomes. In doing so our intention is to offer lessons and advice from early adopters that will have usefulness for future policy development and implementation. We selected six policies for review; Australia, Austria, China, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States. We used a set of criteria to guide a systematic analysis of policy documents for their context, intended target audiences, objectives, proposed actions and interventions, evidence of financial investment and intentions to monitor outcomes. We observed a number of common features that provide helpful signposting for future policy development in other countries. All represent a response to perceived deficiencies in the quality of patient communication and patient engagement. Most present health literacy as a universal challenge, with some also identifying groups who are of higher priority. They all recognize the importance of professional education in improving the quality of communication, and most recognize that the health literacy responsiveness of the health system needs to be improved. However, there was significant variability in linking resources to specific strategies and actions, as well as in the systems for monitoring progress and accountability for progress. This variability reflects important contextual differences between countries and health systems. However, this lack of specificity will likely have an impact on the priority given to improving health literacy and on the long-term sustainability of defined actions to improve health literacy in populations.
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