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Health Literacy Around the World

Posted on by Cynthia Baur

On September 24, the Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Health Literacy (Roundtable) convened health literacy leaders from the United Nations and a dozen countries to discuss activities and progress around the world.

There was general agreement that educational systems have not provided the majority of people with the literacy skills they need to find, read, listen to, analyze, understand and use health information and access health services. Participants also agreed that health care systems – public and private – are not prepared to address the low levels of health literacy skills in the populations they serve.

Dr. Ilona Kickbusch of Switzerland noted that the population data on health literacy skills show how poorly we have done around the globe with our health promotion programs. According to Dr. Kickbusch, if our health promotion efforts had been more successful, our populations would be better prepared to access and use health information and services. She proposes that people are empowered when they have choice, control and skills. (An audio recording of all the speakers is on the Roundtable page under the webinar link.)

Despite common problems, each country has its own approach to health literacy improvement. In Australia, health literacy work is part of the national Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care. Canada has a long history of connecting health literacy with health promotion and the public health sector leads the health literacy work. Ireland’s health literacy activities are linked to the country’s adult literacy agency and its efforts to improve the population’s literacy skills not only in health but also in family literacy and workforce readiness.

The U.S. National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy has influenced some countries’ approaches. For example, Canada’s “inter-sectoral” approach echoes the multi-sectoral approach in the U.S. plan. Participants expressed interest in the U.S. Action Plan as an example of a comprehensive framework for health literacy work.

If you attended the meeting (in person or by webinar), which developments were most interesting to you? If your country wasn’t represented at the meeting, what health literacy activities are happening where you live?

Posted on by Cynthia Baur

3 comments on “Health Literacy Around the World”

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    Health literacy is indeed crucial if we want everyone to have access to health care and to become healthier by themselves. It is especially important in terms of health promotion and prevention because having adequate health literacy can help the receivers, in this case the targeted population, interpret or decode the message in the way that the speaker, in this case public health practitioner or healthcare professional, want them to receive. For health intervention or promotion to work, the population needs to understand what health care providers are trying to tell them and in order to do that, they have to have a certain level of understanding of health literacy. This is the first and crucial step before the decision-making process of whether or not they want to change their health behaviors. Also, I think that the U.S. educational system needs to spend more time and effort to improve the general population’s health literacy via the high school system because that is when an individual starts to make their own choices regarding many important aspects of their lives. Therefore, having adequate health literacy skills as early as a high school student can help individuals make the right choices regarding their well being and hopefully they will continue to do so as they go into their adult life.

    Although I was unable to attended the global health literacy conference, but having taking other classes and attended other presentations on health literacy I feel that more research is required in the area of health literacy. Studies have shown conflicting results when trying to match health literacy with patient outcomes. According to the 2011 article, “Caring for patients with limited health literacy: A 76 year old man with multiple medical problems” Dr. Paasche-Orlow discusses how limited health literacy showed little effect on patients with diabetes. There have also been studies that have shown that improving health literacy can decrease medication errors, improve knowledge of illness, and increase visit adherence. Although improving health literacy is certainly a major public health issue, more research is required to figure out if improving health literacy will lead to better patient outcomes.

    Having been unable to attend the global health literacy conference, but having taken other classes on Health Literacy and Global Health, I feel this is a strong area of need. As an American, my country is always heavily represented, though more work, research and implementation of these policies are needed. Where I live we have a variety of Health Literacy programs going on ensuring the many people within the community have access to the health care they deserve. As a multi-lingual community there has been a push to translate all medical information, outreach, questionnaires, ect. into the appropriate languages so that non-native English speakers have the best access possible. Likewise, some activities here are geared at converting the latest medical research (like new nutritional guidelines) into health literate information so that even the health illiterate can be kept up to date on current trends in medicine.

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