Health literacy

Literacy is a foundational skill that is essential for adults to function effectively in society as citizens, employees and family members. The literacy demands on adults are increasingly complex and the price of poor literacy is increasingly high. Accordingly, accessible, flexible, high-quality adult literacy provision is an essential part of any modern education system” (ELINET, 2016).

The improvement of Health Literacy, the encouragement of critical thinking about the health choices people make and the tools available for this purpose pose a challenge to public health in Portugal” (DGS, Plano de Ação para a Literacia em Saúde 2019-2021).

Health Literacy Policies

At Value for Health Colab, our vision and the actions we take to promote Health Literacy are fully aligned with the general guidelines of the current National Health Plan (PNS) and the Health Literacy Action Plan (PALS). In these guidelines, the citizen emerges as the central player in the Health System, having “the right and the duty to influence health policy decisions that collectively affect the population in the performance of their different roles:

  1. as a patient with specific needs;
  2. as a consumer with expectations and the right to safe and quality care; and
  3. as a contributor to the National Health Service”.

The citizen is, therefore, assumed to be an important participant in the system and an active promoter of change.

The process that allows citizens to take a much more active role in health is based on education and health literacy. The general aim is to promote health gains, encourage the wellbeing of the population, and contribute to increasing the overall quality of life.

From this perspective, at Value for Health Colab we are focused on two important lines of action, testing the approaches and designing methodologies adapted to the actual needs of each project:

  • On the one hand, we aim to address the need to raise citizen awareness of a culture of citizenship, with greater emphasis on their capacity for autonomy and accountability in relation to their own health and the health of those around them;
  • On the other hand, there is a need for actions aimed at promoting literacy that, by educating people, will ensure they are better informed about issues related to health and disease prevention.

Relation between Health Literacy and Terminology

Studies have shown that general literacy levels in Portugal are still low. Most people have trouble understanding technical or complex language, such as instructions for taking medicine, the results of medical screening tests, or legal documents. Therefore, it is important to develop methodologies to improve the presentation of information in public documents and to help citizens make informed choices about their health, education, wellbeing, and civil rights (Pedro, Amaral and Escoval, 2016).

In this regard, Terminology offers multiple interfaces through the connection that it establishes between language sciences and the different areas of knowledge (Costa, Silva and Campos, 2020), e.g., health sciences. Terminology aims at studying terms as two-dimensional units of knowledge: both linguistic and conceptual. Any terminological work must take this perspective into account in its approach to the methodology used for the “systematic collection, description, processing and presentation of concepts and their designations” (ISO 1087: 2019). Thus, in their work, terminologists should identify the term and the designated concept, or the concept and the term that designates it, i.e., the textual definition that enables the stabilisation of the relationship between them (Costa, Silva and Campos, 2020).

The practice of popularizing scientific technical terminology, where possible, implies that the terminology used is still accurate and appropriate to the purpose of the communication, and that it conveys the information in a transparent and simple manner in view of the target audience, the context, and its intended aim. We should consider the possibility of using different terms for different audiences, i.e., depending on the different situations, we need to be aware of the tension created between the desire for accuracy and the complexity that literacy entails.

COVID-19 Collaborative Glossary

This example of a terminology resource for non-specialists could not be more pertinent. Value for Health CoLAB has been working on the COVID-19 Collaborative Glossary, designed and led by NOVA CLUNL with the collaboration of several Portuguese language institutions – the University of São Paulo, the University Agostinho Neto, and Academia das Ciências de Lisboa. This collaborative glossary brings together the terminology used by health institutions, professionals in the field, and all other stakeholders, allowing access to organized terminological information on the disease in clear and easy-to-understand language; this is one of the essential elements in the process of preventing health risks.

As advocated by the WHO, the promotion of health literacy involves the activation of all cognitive and social skills, and the ability to gain access to knowledge and use information to promote health and remain healthy. This requires involving patients in their own safety and treatment process, keeping them properly informed and aware of all aspects of their clinical path.

Strengthening collaborative work and fostering interdisciplinarity

More than ever, collaborative work is on the top of the agenda. For Roldão (2007), “collaborative work is essentially structured as a jointly conceived and organised work process that facilitates the achievement of the desired results, based on the improvement brought about by the dynamic interaction of different types of specific knowledge and various cognitive processes”. The added-value, thus, arises from this synergy of common thinking and from the interaction of several areas of knowledge. Interdisciplinarity results from this sharing of different fields that combine efforts in an organised manner, seeking new approaches that constitute the cognitive synthesis of this interconnection between areas of knowledge (Choi and Pak, 2006).

At Value for Health CoLAB we are aware that the new challenges with great potential for interdisciplinary research lie in the intersection of social sciences and humanities, technology and engineering, and with a wide range of other disciplines.

The most innovative projects, where the aim is to further knowledge by solving real problems or developing new products or services, are collaborative and interdisciplinary by nature, thus, paving the way for new and challenging research avenues in health sciences.

— About the author —

As Head of Health Literacy, Raquel explores methodologies in Linguistics and Terminology, and develops tailored contents for Health Literacy and Communication with patients, health professionals, caregivers, health managers and other groups involved in the provision of Healthcare.



Choi, B.; Pak, A. – “Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity in health research, services, education and policy: Definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness”, Clinical & Investigative Medicine journal, Vol. 29, no 6, December 2006.

Costa, R; Silva, R; Campos, M.I.  – “Terminologia, uma disciplina de interfaces”, Prefácio, Número 33/1 da Revista Linha d´Água (ISSN 2236-4242) “Semântica e Morfologia em Terminologia”, Brasil, Março 2020.

ISO 1087:2019 (F), Terminology work and terminology science — Vocabulary. Geneva.  International Organization for Standardization.

Larivière, V; Gingras, Y – “Measuring inter-­‐disciplinarity”,  in B. Cronin & C. Sugimoto (Eds.), Beyond Bibliometrics: Harnessing Multidimensional Indicators of Scholarly Impact. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014

Ministério da Saúde. Plano de Ação para a Literacia em Saúde 2019-2021 – Portugal. Lisboa: Direção-Geral da Saúde, 2018.

Ministério da Saúde. Plano Nacional de Saúde, Revisão e Extensão a 2020. Lisboa: Direção-Geral da Saúde, 2015.

Roldão, M. – “Colaborar é preciso: questões de qualidade e eficácia no trabalho dos professores.,” in Dossier: Trabalho colaborativo os professores, Revista Noesis, n.º71, 2007.

Valtin, R et al. (chair) – European Declaration of the Right to Literacy. European Literacy Policy Network (ELINET), 2016.

Pedro, A. R.; Amaral, O.; Escoval, A. – Literacia em saúde, dos dados à ação: tradução validação e aplicação do European Health Literacy Survey em Portugal, Revista Portuguesa de Saúde Pública, 2016.