The issue of health literacy and how it affects European health policies

Vytenis Andriukaitis, EU Commissioner responsible for Health and Food Safety. © European Union , 2016 / Date: 17/06/2016. Source: EC – Audiovisual Location: Luxembourg - LUXEMBOURG

Vytenis Andriukaitis, EU Commissioner responsible for Health and Food Safety. © European Union Date: 17/06/2016. Source: EC – Audiovisual
Location: Luxembourg – LUXEMBOURG

Exclusively written for the Sting by Ms Lili Diana Szabo, a medical student at Semmelweis University, Hungary. Ms Szabo is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Association (IFMSA).

Health literacy is a growing topic that affects health systems and trends worldwide. There is no question that modern health policies should be influenced by health literacy. The question is how can we deal with the growing issue of health literacy? Do we need to take actions in order to improve all over health literacy, or is it enough to educate our health care professionals about the main facts in order to improve the doctor patient communication? Maybe the best option is to work on both fields to gain the best results.

Health systems work best with patients who have the self-awareness and empowerment to:

  • decide whether they should turn to doctors,
  • be part of the therapeutic decisions with their doctor
  • and find valid health information and sources.

Health literacy should be part of the elementary and high school education. To be health literate when grown up is as important as having basic mathematical, writing or reading skills. This does not mean professional knowledge, but everyone should be educated and informed enough to solve those health related issues that one comes across everyday life.

There were various health literacy assessing studies in the past years, like the HLS EU report, which measured Health Literacy in eight EU member states. The results of this study pointed out, that steps for improving health literacy is necessary. Almost every second respondent (47.6%) in the total sample had limited (inadequate or problematic) health literacy, with the prevalence ranging from 28.7% in the Netherlands to more than 62.1% in Bulgaria.

According to WHO, health literacy is a main factor in preventing and maintaining non-communicable diseases which are the so called “modern civilization diseases”.WHO’s Health Literacy Action Plan states, that policies need to be developed for health literacy. It highlights the role of politicians, professionals and society to promote and implement health literacy initiatives.

The International Union for Health Promotion and Education has established a Global Working Group on Health Literacy. Longer lifespans and the growing prevalence of non-communicable diseases requiring complex and expensive interventions put escalating pressure on health systems globally.

There are several examples of health literacy related interventions:

  • 50plusnet.nl is a Dutch internet community which allows its more than 33.000 active members over the age of 50 to expand their social network, engage in activities with people who belong to the same age group, and learn from each other. 50plusnet was developed by the Dutch National Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.
  • Karelia Social and Health Care District (Eksote) provides health care and welfare services for families and seniors with limited affluence in Karelia, Finland. An important success was reaching elderly with chronic disease combining e-health and mobile techniques with personal health coaching. This approach shows that remote monitoring should be accompanied by human contact for best effect.

The problem of low health literacy is current and urgent: the ability to access, understand, appraise and communicate information in relation to health and diseases should be the base of each patient-doctor encounter.

References:

  • Health Literacy Centre Europe: Comprehensive Approach more effective, 2015
  • KristineSørensen,Jürgen M.Pelikan,FlorianRöthlin: Health literacy in Europe: comparative results of the European health literacy survey (HLS-EU),2015
  • Ilona Kickbusch, Jürgen M. Pelikan, Franklin Apfel& Agis D. Tsouros: WHO Health Literacy The Solid Facts: Developing policies for health literacy at the local, national and European Region levels, 2013

About the author:

Ms Lili Diana Szabo is a medical student at Semmelweis University, Hungary. She is an active member of Budapest Medical Students’ Association, which is a member of IFMSA and EMSA. She also writes for the student magazine, Szinapszis and is involved in a health literacy research project at her university.

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