National Numeracy is an independent charity established in 2012 to help raise low levels of numeracy among adults and children and promote the importance of everyday maths skills.    

Half of the UK population are working at or below levels of numeracy expected at primary school level (Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills, 2011), and of particular concern is the effect poor numeracy has on people’s abilities to self-manage their care and carry out health promoting behaviours. 

Research suggests that 61% of working adults in the UK lack the numeracy skills needed to look after their health (Rowlands et al., 2014). 

This includes planning a healthy diet, understanding risks, and interpreting basic results such as blood pressure readings.    

Research from the US suggests that people diagnosed with hypertension who have poor numeracy are less able to monitor their blood pressure. 

For example, Williams et al. (1998) found that 55% of hypertension patients with low numeracy were unable to identify high blood pressure. 

There are also concerns that people with poor numeracy are less able to manage complications that can arise from high blood pressure, such as diabetes. 

Evidence suggests poor numeracy results in failure to calculate carbohydrate intake and insulin doses, interpret glucose readings, and to know when to seek medical help (Cavanaugh et al., 2008; Marden et al. 2012; Zigmund-Fisher et al. 2014). 

Similarly, Gazmarian et al. (2003) found that hypertension patients with poor numeracy were less likely to understand the benefits of exercise.    

It is difficult to monitor your weight, make sense of nutritional labels, or understand risk without good numeracy skills, and there is mounting research suggesting that people with poor numeracy are less able to live healthy lifestyles. 

For example, someone is 10% less likely to smoke with every 5% increase in health literacy skills (Von Wagner et al., 2007; Rothman et al., 2006). 

The same is true for a healthy diet, where someone is 10% more likely to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day with every 5% rise in their health literacy (Kerr & Marden, 2010). 

This research indicates that poor numeracy levels affect people’s abilities to both prevent future problems and adapt lifestyle changes.

Without intervention, an increasing lack of health literacy in society could therefore increase the strain on health services.

For example, Griffey et al. (2014) found people with low health literacy are 64% more likely to make emergency healthcare visits.  

Numeracy among healthcare staff

National Numeracy works with employers including the NHS and have found extensive evidence of poor numeracy amongst not just patients, but also staff, which we have found to be exemplified by maths anxiety amongst nurses, healthcare assistants, and non-clinical staff, and this can hold them back in their careers.  

“I wanted to train as a nurse aged 24, am now 53 but I was sure I could not do blood pressures or injections, so I didn’t go for my training. It has held me back all my life.”  

Here at the charity National Numeracy, we believe that however you feel about maths, you are not alone and low confidence with numbers can be overcome. 

In fact our Number Confidence Week campaign recently highlighted the issue and offered free resources to help everyone feel more comfortable with numbers. 

We believe that numeracy is relevant in everyday life, such as patient health information, and that a positive attitude towards understanding and working with numbers can help patients and care-givers alike.  

We have worked extensively with the NHS, to improve staff number confidence and skills in order to bolster their current roles and to help people   progress their careers.    

National Numeracy has developed a unique approach to supporting numeracy in the workplace, using training sessions and our innovative online tool, the National Numeracy Challenge which gives people the confidence to learn independently online, at their own pace and level. 

This in turn enables them to overcome barriers to career progression routes.    

“I have recently been offered a job at a different trust, and part of the job description was a maths test. Before, I would have packed up my bags and left, but this time I walked in proud, because I had confidence in my maths after doing the Challenge. Now, I feel ready to go on to study nursing, which is a dream come true.”  NHS worker

“I feel like I have so much more confidence at work now. I have actually worked in the NHS for a very long time, but in the finance department. I felt comfortable there because the spreadsheets helped me with the maths! Training to be a healthcare assistant is a complete change of role for me, but I wish I had the confidence to do it years ago. I’ve come to realise that age doesn’t matter in learning, and it shouldn’t hold you back.” NHS worker  

Often, having confidence with numbers is the first step to improving number skills.  

Why not get started at: www.nnchallenge.org.uk/pif.    

Additionally, please get in touch with National Numeracy if you'd like to talk about how we can help improve numeracy in your workplace: sally@nationalnumeracy.org.uk

References  

Cavanaugh et al. 2008. Association of numeracy and diabetes control. Annals of Internal Medicine. 148(10): 737-46.  

Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills. 2011. The Skills for Life Survey: A survey of literacy, numeracy, and ICT Skills in England. URN 12/P168. [pdf] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/36000/12-p168-2011-skills-for-life-survey.pdf [Accessed 10 November  2020].    

Gazmararian JA, Williams MV, Peel J, Baker DW. 2003. Health Literacy and Knowledge of Chronic Disease. Patient Education & Counselling. 51(3): 267-275.  

Griffey RT, Kennedy SK, McGownan L, Goodman M, Kaphingt KA. 2014. Is low health literacy associated with increased emergency department utilization and recidivism. Academic​ Emergency Medicine. 21(10): 1109-1115.  

Kerr D & Marden S. 2010. Numeracy and insulin pump therapy. Diabetic Medicine. 27(6): 730-731.

Marden S, Thomas PW, Sheppard ZA, Knott J, Luedekke J, Ker D. 2012. Poor numeracy skills are associated with glycaemic control in Type1 diabetes. Diabetic Medicine. 29(5): 662-9.  

Rothman RL et al. 2006. Patient understanding of food labels: The role of literacy and numeracy. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 31(5): 391-398.    

Rowlands G, Protheroe J, Winkley J, Richardson M, Rudd R. 2014. Defining and describing the mismatch between population health literacy and numeracy and health system complexity, an observational study. (Submitted to the BMC Public Health for peer review).  

Von Wagner C, Knight K, Steptoe A, Wardle J. a  2007. Functional health literacy and health-promoting behaviour in a national sample of British adults. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 61(12): 1086-1090.

Williams MV, Baker DW, Parker RM, Nurss JR. 1998. Relationship of Functional Health Literacy to Patients’ Knowledge of Their Chronic Disease: A study of patients with hypertension and diabetes. Internal Medicine. 158(2): 166-172.    

Zigmund-Fisher BJ, Exe NL, Witteman HO. 2014. Numeracy and literacy independently predict patients’ ability to identify out-of-range test result. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 16(8):e187.