Personal Reflections on Women and Health Literacy

From Janet Solla, Director for Learning at the Community Health & Learning Foundation

Recently, when I was asked to contribute a blog about women and health literacy, for International Women’s Day, I spent several days really thinking hard about what I should write.

I started to think about how I have been involved in community health and well being education for thirteen years and in health literacy education for nine years.  I thought about all the women I have seen and worked with in both teaching on and managing the Skilled for Health course – England’s only health literacy programme.

This led me on to thinking about much information and knowledge I now have about the impact that having low literacy skills can have on people’s lives.  One thing really stands out for me though – that it is still in the main women who take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their families regardless of their nationality and background.

It goes without saying then that if the women have health literacy needs the impact on their families can be quite profound.  One of the things that women have discussed in the groups I have worked with is the difficulties of turning up for doctors appointments as they cannot read the appointment letters sent.  Then when they do turn up it is hard to explain what is wrong with them or their family member as they don’t have the language skills to explain or the level and type of pain that is being experienced.

Another problem that many women talk about, is their difficulty understanding the information being given at a time when they or a member of the family is seriously ill.  It is even more difficult if they can’t understand the information that is being given or read the leaflets that are provided.  Many women feel too embarrassed or don’t have the confidence to ask questions.  The impacts of this can be that medication is not taken properly, lifestyle changes are not made and recovery is put back.

However, what I have also been privileged to witness during my work in this field is how gaining health literacy skills and knowledge transforms the lives of women.  It is truly inspirational to hear women talking about what they have learned and how they are going to apply and share it; and they mean much wider than just to themselves.

How do I know this?  Well, the evaluations that have been carried out for our Skilled for Health courses show that the health knowledge and health literacy skills gained by women on the courses is cascaded to family and friends.  I really believe that if we truly want to reduce the ever widening inequalities gap and stop people dying prematurely of preventable diseases, women need to be health literate and have the skills and knowledge to make informed decisions and changes about their own and their families health.  I would be really interested to know if you agree so please feel free to get in touch with your comments at