Health literacy – clearer cancer communication for better health

Medical doctor or nurse talking to an older woman patient

What is health literacy?

Health literacy is the ability to get, understand and use healthcare information.

Almost 1 in 3 people in Ireland have difficulties with health literacy.

Health literacy difficulties can have a huge effect on patients’ ability to prevent and cope with illnesses, including cancer. 

Health literacy and cancer

People with low health literacy are:

  • More likely to get cancer
  • Less likely to get screened 
  • Less likely to take lifestyle steps to avoid cancer
  • More likely to be diagnosed later. This can mean their cancer is harder to treat 
  • More likely to have trouble managing their disease – for example, making treatment decisions, taking medication correctly and managing side-effects
  • More likely to suffer severe distress
  • More likely to die from their cancer

Health literacy and the Irish Cancer Society

The Irish Cancer Society wants everyone in Ireland to have the same access to care and support during their cancer journey. Supporting good health literacy by working with cancer patients and the people who care for them will help to reduce inequalities in cancer rates, experiences and outcomes.

Patient empowerment

We want to empower people with confidence and skills to cope better with their cancer and avoid unnecessary physical and emotional difficulties. 

We have worked with the Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) to produce videos on 3 core areas of health literacy – Getting the most from health appointments, Understanding test results and Finding information and support between appointments. The videos were supported by MSD and feature cancer survivors and an adult literacy learner. 

Our cancer nurses

Our cancer nurses – in hospital-based Daffodil Centres and on our Freephone Support Line – are there for patients who have difficulty getting, understanding or using health information. Here are some typical health literacy related calls they have helped with:

  • “Worried but don’t want to bother their oncology team” 
  • “Caught off guard’ at her last consult and didn’t take all of the information in.” 
  • “Found out by chance that she’d been taking only half the correct dose of her cancer medication for 6 months” 
  • “Feels isolated and doesn’t understand her disease”
  • “Wondering if he is going to die”
  • “Does not understand the type and grading and wanted it explained.  Also does not understand the test.”

To talk to a nurse:

Advice for patients

Our treatment tips page has lots of advice for patients on getting the most from their healthcare and life during treatment.

Older woman talking to her doctor

Supporting healthcare professionals

Healthcare professionals have an important role to play in supporting patients with health literacy needs. Clear, efficient communication helps cancer patients to understand and manage their treatment and care.

The Irish Cancer Society and the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) have produced an eLearning course to raise awareness of how health literacy can affect cancer patients and give an overview of health literacy friendly communication techniques. These include the universal precautions approach, teachback and tips for writing plain language patient information.

View the course:

Our cancer information

Our cancer booklets and web information are designed to support patients and busy doctors by providing easy-to-understand information on all stages of the cancer journey – from prevention and early detection to diagnosis and treatment, side-effects and where to go for practical and emotional support. 

For more information

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1800 200 700

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