Health literacy in Australia… as easy as ABC?

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Health literacy in Australia... as easy as ABC? Cube PR blog

Health literacy in Australia... as easy as ABC? Cube PR blog

For all of us working in the healthcare industry, it is easy to focus all our attention on the development and delivery of information to patients and the general public at large. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we must also pay attention to how that information will be received and understood – a process referred to as ‘health literacy’. At last week’s FROCOMM Health Communications, Marketing & Media Conference, the topic took centre stage – what it is, how Australia is fairing and ways to improve it.

Search the internet and you will find a plethora of information on health literacy, ranging from official Government-funded reports to blogs which ask why Australia, a nation obsessed with health, lags behind, albeit slightly, other first-world countries such as Canada.

Health literacy is described as a person’s ability to use health information effectively. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) provides a more detailed definition - “the knowledge and skills required to understand and use information relating to health issues such as drugs and alcohol, disease prevention and treatment, safety and accident prevention, first aid, emergencies and staying healthy”.

Health literacy has become an increasing focus in recent years amongst Government and academics. The latest version of the ABS ‘Health Literacy, Australia’ report delves deep into demographic distinctions and, whilst it’s not hugely surprising that people with higher formal education attainment achieve higher levels of health literacy, age does have a significant impact. Health literacy it increases from 15 to 39 years, then decreases for those ages 40 and over. The ABS report surmises this is because aging causes physical, psychological and social change.

Just last year, two reports into health literacy were released, both unveiling worrying findings. The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission (NHHRC) report found six out of every 10 Australians would experience difficulty in understanding or making the choices necessary to stay healthy, or to find their way round the health system. Similarly, a study by Australian doctors at the University of Adelaide stated many people do not understand basic health information.

That is enough of the problem – what are the potential solutions? At the FROCOMM conference a number of people representing universities and industry associations offered their views. Peter Waterman from the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia encourages people to search through the society’s Pharmacy Self Care program online, which has over 80 separate factsheets on topics as diverse as Alzheimer’s, antibiotics and alcohol. The Society also recently set up a Facebook page in an attempt to have as more direct dialogue with consumers.

Deon Schoombie from the Australian Self-Medication Industry (ASMI) agrees consumers should seek to have a direct dialogue with their healthcare professional. He also highlighted social media as the ideal way to engage publicly and directly with people as it is about them and allows the health system to offer a tailored message, bringing the system closer to a real conversation/interaction. ASMI recently launched a Facebook page, Twitter profile and regular blog, demonstrating their tangible belief in this viewpoint.

All FROCOMM panellists agreed that better education in schools is critical as is making the health system more accessible. (Backing up this viewpoint, the NHHRC report also recommends health literacy be included as a core element in the curriculum for both primary and secondary schools).

The provision of information in a consumer-friendly and engaging manner and connecting consumers with HCPs quickly was also discussed. Professor Clare Collins from the Dietitians Association of Australia believes flexibility of information delivery will help ensure it captures the attention of the target population – for example, SMS texting for younger populations.

Is getting Australia’s health literacy levels to the standard they should be as easy as ABC? Not quite, but addressing the issue must remain a priority to ensure Australia remains a truly healthy nation. As part of Australia’s healthcare industry, we have a unique opportunity to help in a tangible way  by ensuring we focus on the 3 d’s with all communications materials – developing, delivering and perhaps most importantly, deciphering.

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Do we really care about self-care?

Do We Really Care About Self-Care?

Do We Really Care About Self-Care?

Ssshhhh – listen carefully and you’ll undoubtedly hear a lot of noise in Australia right now about ‘self-care’ and ‘preventative health’.

The Australian Self-Medication Industry (ASMI) recently released a Position Paper entitled ‘Increasing Access to Medicines to Enhance Self Care’, calling for Government and other stakeholders to make increased access to medicines a “fundamental plank of the emerging health policy landscape” as well as a more patient-centred approach to primary care – so all Australians can take greater control of managing own health where appropriate.

Encouragingly, the Minister for Health & Aging Nicola Roxon has been particularly vocal on the topic of self-care. She’s highlighted the need for industry and key organisations to drive change in preventative health, with reference to the Australian Preventative Health Legislation currently before the parliament and the draft National Primary Health Care Strategy.

Earlier this month, Ms Roxon attended ASMI’s annual conference and reiterated the Rudd Government’s commitment to ensuring Australians have the “support mechanisms” – such as access to medicines and services – to take better control of their own health. She also talked about the need for greater investment in “health literacy”.  (Worryingly, half of the Australian population is deemed illiterate within this context).

Nobody can argue there is much conversation, documentation and debate which is a definite step in the right direction. But when are we going to get some action and see policies become practice?

As Ms Roxon rightly reiterated, “good health requires individual and collective action”.

Speakers at the ASMI conference represented pharmaceutical companies, industry bodies and academia. All communicated a variety of views but they fundamentally agreed an evolution of Australia’s healthcare system, rather than a revolution, is what’s needed to achieve our self-care aims.

The right tools are in the self-care toolbox; we only need to tweak the way we deploy them. For example, a recent study revealed shifting treatment of the most frequent minor ailments from doctors to pharmacists would free up between 3 and 7 per cent of Australia’s GP workforce.

Do we care about self-care? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Now all stakeholders need to turn talk into tactics; only then can we all really believe the decision makers practice what they preach.

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