Health literacy matters

Health literacy Describing populations: the phenomonology of disease Biology in a scoietal and environmental context Complex systems and sustainability Physical actvity, exercise and energy expenditure Nutrition

Health literacy is a perfect fit with the work of the Charles Perkins Centre, as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease require the individual to make long-term changes to their lifestyle and to understand their condition and become actively involved with their own healthcare.

While there is a large body of descriptive research showing the relationship between lower health literacy and poor health outcomes, there has been a lack of high-quality research evidence from randomised trials. As Kirsten points out, it is this kind of evidence that will help change policy. A main aim of the project node is therefore to take potential solutions for improving health literacy and test them rigorously to inform policy decisions.

Kirsten and her team were recently awarded an ARC Linkage grant to review a UK health literacy program and adapt it to Australian priorities, creating new content and a curriculum to be rolled out and evaluated in collaboration with TAFEs in NSW.

As a project node leader, Kirsten will engage with other researchers working on topics that intersect with health literacy. The node will provide a focus for researchers with shared interests and allow them to connect with others from different disciplines and universities. Bringing these groups together will stimulate new collaborations and create a critical mass in Australia, which so far has been lacking, with most health literacy research happening elsewhere, notably in the United States.

Fostering these new collaborations and organising the node strategically will be supported by the upcoming international conference and two-day workshop where Kirsten hopes to sees the Health Literacy project node develop new project proposals, moving towards filling the gap in Australian-based research.

Health Literacy Network

The Health Literacy Network is a multidisciplinary, international research network which aims to develop research partnerships and collaborations to improve the management of chronic disease in developed and low and middle income countries for adults with lower health literacy.

The network is supported by the Worldwide Universities Network and the Charles Perkins Centre. The Network targets national and international health priorities in chronic disease including Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander and migrant communities.

It seeks to develop and test sustainable interventions for use in complex health, education and social systems to mitigate the impact of poor health literacy on health outcomes. The group brings together Australian and international researchers from diverse disciplines, including Public Health, Psychology, Education, Pharmacy, Indigenous Health, Medicine, and Media and Communications. It includes key statutory and non-statutory stakeholders to ensure research is relevant to policy and practice and health consumers.

Meet the project leader

Associate Professor Kirsten McCaffery

Associate Professor Kirsten McCaffery is leading the Charles Perkins Centre’s Health Literacy project node to address how to reduce the harmful impact of low health literacy on the risk of chronic disease.

Although there have been significant advances in healthcare and a shift towards a more information-based society, many people are being left behind and are unable to experience the benefits of healthcare improvements simply due to low health literacy, that is, difficulties in reading and understanding health information and navigating the health services available to them.

People with lower health literacy have higher rates of hospitalisation, make more medication errors and have lower adherence. They also have higher rates of mortality and morbidity, and clinicians can find it a challenge to communicate effectively with these patients.

Kirsten, from the School of Public Health, passionately believes that health literacy matters, that it can be improved, and that the quality of life of the most vulnerable can be enhanced by empowering them to understand and engage with their own health care.

Her interest in health literacy was first sparked when conducting a study in Glasgow as part of her PhD in health psychology. Kirsten’s work involved interviewing 200 adult patients aged in their 50s across a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. The interviews revealed enormous discrepancies in many aspects of health across the socioeconomic spectrum and highlighted the influence of education and socioeconomic factors on health, lifestyle, attitudes and access to information and services. These findings indicated an urgent need to focus on the most vulnerable.

After completing her PhD in London, Kirsten moved to Sydney where her postdoctoral studies included work on cervical screening and then the topic of shared health decision-making, where patients are given evidence-based information, and, in conjunction with their doctor, are empowered to make decisions about their own health. Being able to make an informed decision in this situation requires high levels of health literacy.

The collaboration team


School/ Discipline

Associate Professor James Gillespie

Associate Professor in Health Policy and Deputy Director, Menzies Centre for Health Policy

Sydney School of Public Health

Associate Professor Parisa Aslani

Pharmacy Practice

Faculty of Pharmacy

Professor Phyllis Butow

Chair of Psychology

Co-Director CeMPED & Chair PoCoG

School of Psychology

Dr Ilona Juraskova

Senior Lecturer in Health Psychology

Cancer Institute NSW Research Fellow

School of Psychology

Stephen Black


Kieko Yasukawa


Dr Haryana Dhillon

Research Fellow, Survivorship Research Group


Centre for Medical Psychology & Evidence-based Decision-making, Central Clinical School

Sydney Medical School

Dr Jesse Jansen

NHMRC Early Career Fellow

Screening and Test Evaluation Program

Centre for Medical Psychology & Evidence-based Decision-making – CeMPED

Sydney School of Public Health

Associate Professor Lyndal Trevena

Associate Professor

Sydney School of Public Health

Dr Angela Webster

Associate Professor/Nephrologist

Clinical Epidemiology

Sydney School of Public Health