Distribution of health literacy strengths and weaknesses across socio-demographic groups: a cross-sectional survey using the Health Literacy Questionnaire (HLQ)

BMC Public Health. 2015 Jul 21;15:678. doi: 10.1186/s12889-015-2056-z.


Background: Recent advances in the measurement of health literacy allow description of a broad range of personal and social dimensions of the concept. Identifying differences in patterns of health literacy between population sub-groups will increase understanding of how health literacy contributes to health inequities and inform intervention development. The aim of this study was to use a multi-dimensional measurement tool to describe the health literacy of adults in urban and rural Victoria, Australia.

Methods: Data were collected from clients (n = 813) of 8 health and community care organisations, using the Health Literacy Questionnaire (HLQ). Demographic and health service data were also collected. Data were analysed using descriptive statistics. Effect sizes (ES) for standardised differences in means were used to describe the magnitude of difference between demographic sub-groups.

Results: Mean age of respondents was 72.1 (range 19-99) years. Females comprised 63% of the sample, 48% had not completed secondary education, and 96% reported at least one existing health condition. Small to large ES were seen for mean differences in HLQ scales between most demographic groups. Compared with participants who spoke English at home, those not speaking English at home had much lower scores for most HLQ scales including the scales 'Understanding health information well enough to know what to do' (ES -1.09 [95% confidence interval (CI) -1.33 to -0.84]), 'Ability to actively engage with healthcare providers' (ES -1.00 [95% CI -1.24, -0.75]), and 'Navigating the healthcare system' (ES -0.72 [95% CI -0.97, -0.48]). Similar patterns and ES were seen for participants born overseas compared with those born in Australia. Smaller ES were seen for sex, age group, private health insurance status, number of chronic conditions, and living alone.

Conclusions: This study has revealed some large health literacy differences across nine domains of health literacy in adults using health services in Victoria. These findings provide insights into the relationship between health literacy and socioeconomic position in vulnerable groups and, given the focus of the HLQ, provide guidance for the development of equitable interventions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Chronic Disease
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Ethnic Groups / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Health Literacy / statistics & numerical data*
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Residence Characteristics
  • Sex Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Victoria
  • Young Adult