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.