Literacy difficulties ‘hurt oral health'

The 2011 Skills for Life Survey, published in December by the Department for Business and Innovation found that one in six (15 per cent) of adults aged 16-65 achieved literacy skills at or below entry Level 3 – the equivalent expected by the National Curriculum of those leaving Primary School.

Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, says the profession need to make sure those who lack basic reading skills get the right information in a form that is more easily understood.

Dr Carter said: “Millions of people in the UK suffer from poor literacy skills and this can have a troubling impact on their oral health. Regrettably, this will ultimately have an effect on a patient’s ability to read, understand and use oral healthcare information to make decisions and follow instructions for treatment, often leaving them wondering where to go and what to do next.

“Patients are not expected to understand medical jargon and dental professionals must consider carefully how effective their communication is verbally, online and in print.”

The British Dental Health Foundation offer a series of more than 50 easy to read information leaflets, ranging on a variety of dental topics. Over one million leaflets were sold to dental practices and oral health educators in 2011, while a further million visited online versions on the Foundation’s website.

Dr Carter added: “We have a strict policy on plain English for all our educational material. Our Tell Me About range offers easy to understand information, which avoids medical jargon and includes diagrams outlining various stages of treatment. Written and verified by qualified dental professionals, in an easy to understand Q&A format, they have proved immensely popular with the profession and are undoubtedly a worthwhile tool to make sure the patients leave with the right information. Our Dental Helpline service also gives patients another way to get the clear and simple information they need.”

The nationwide survey investigating literacy levels throughout the UK also found that an estimated 1.1 million adults fit into entry Level 1 – the equivalent of National Curriculum for 5-7 year-olds. This figure has increased by a third since the previous study in 2003 (from 3.4 per cent to 5 per cent).

Poor literacy may be a widespread problem but dentists can only act if they know they exist, but there are several tell-tale signs to look out for.

Patients could struggle completing forms, having problems replying to recall letters or have difficulty following written advice.

Patients with such difficulties should report them to their dentist so they can receive the information in a format that is easy to understand, giving them the best possible care.

The Foundation’s Dental Helpline, manned by trained dental nurses and oral health educators, is open between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday on 0845 063 1188. Alternatively the team respond to enquiries from the website.


Editor’s notes

1. Department for Business and Innovation (2011), 2011 Skills for Life Survey, December 2011.