Numeracy and managing your Health

Research shows that many people do not have adequate numeracy skills to look after their health.

There are many numeracy skills that people need to look after their health. People need numeracy skills to manage their diets, make and keep medical appointments, measure medicine doses, or simply work out a routine for taking tablets throughout a day.

Currently 43% of the UK population lack adequate literacy skills to understand food labels, medicinal instructions, and information given by the NHS in leaflets and online. Even more concerning is that 61% do not have the numeracy-specific health literacy skills needed to maintain their health (Rowlands et al., 2015).

For example, Cancer Research UK recently found that 46% of people got the answer wrong when asked whether a risk of 1 in 100, 1 in 10, or 1 in 1000 resulted in more chance of their getting a disease (Smith et al., 2014). They also found that those with poor numeracy skills were less likely to take a bowel cancer screening test. 

People with specific chronic health conditions are at particular risk if they have poor numeracy skills. Poor numeracy affects patients’ abilities to self-manage many chronic healthcare conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and blood pressure (Apter et al., 2006; Cavanaugh et al., 2008; Fraser et al., 2013; Estrada et al., 2004). Crucially, research suggests that people with lower health literacy are more likely to make emergency care visits, suggesting that poor numeracy affects people’s abilities to self-manage their care. 

But everyone needs numeracy to protect their health. Research show that people with poor numeracy are less able to monitor their diets, take regular exercise, give up smoking, and interpret food labels (Von Wagner et al. 2007; Rothman et al., 2006). 

More recently, research has found that patients need an understanding of numeracy to make informed decisions on when, where, and how to be treated (Protheroe et al., 2009; Von Wagner et al., 2009). 

Read the full research (pdf)