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Why Australia needs to improve in health literacy

When discussing the most serious challenges to the health of our community the focus is usually on specific diseases or conditions, such as diabetes and obesity.  However, Australia’s low rate of health literacy is arguably a greater challenge to our well-being and one will become more serious as the rates of chronic disease rise and health care becomes increasingly more complex.

Professor Mark Harris and his team from the Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity, UNSW and the Centre for Obesity Management and Prevention Research Excellence in Primary Health Care (COMPaRE-PHC) are undertaking research into the role of health literacy in preventing and managing obesity in primary health care.

In the following piece he argues for more attention to be paid at a policy level to health literacy and discusses research undertaken COMPaRE-PHC into low-cost interventions in the primary health care setting which are showing some promising results.

[divide style=”dots” width=”medium”]

Professor Harris writes:

Health literacy is just as important to the health of our community as many new medicines.  When people lack basic health literacy skills, like understanding health advice and following doctors’ instructions, they find it difficult to maintain their well-being and to get the health care they need when they are sick.

This is a widespread and serious problem.  Australian Bureau of Statistics research has found that a staggering 59% of Australians have difficulty with the basic skills needed for health self-management. These include locating information on a bottle of medicine about the maximum number of days the medicine could be taken and indicating levels, such as one-third, on a given container.

Impact of low health literacy

Research into health literacy has found that people with low health literacy are less likely to seek preventive health care, such as immunisations, and are more likely to miss appointments, misuse medication, and fail to follow the advice provided by their doctors.  This leads to more adverse events, poorer health outcomes, higher rates of hospitalisation, a lower quality of life for individuals and increased health care costs overall.

The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care has found that low health literacy can significantly drain human and financial resources, and may be associated with extra costs of 3–5% to the health system.

Researchers at COMPaRE-PHC have found that both GPs and practice nurses report that the low health literacy of patients is a barrier to managing complex health conditions such as obesity.  This problem is will become more critical with the increase in chronic conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and dementia, which require complex and coordinated care.

Low cost interventions

The good news is that there are some simple and low cost interventions that can make a big difference to health literacy.  At a Symposium on Health Literacy this week, hosted by COMPaRE-PHC, a number of internationally recognised experts on health literacy and primary health care presented effective strategies for improving health literacy with a focus on the prevention and management of obesity in primary health care settings.  

One intervention presented at the Symposium was an intervention to train GPs and practice nurses to change the way they communicated with patients with low health literacy. Early results indicate that this intervention changed the behaviour of the health professionals and improved the health literacy of patients.

This is very promising because if low cost interventions can successfully support patients with low health literacy to manage their own health behaviours we can both improve people’s quality of life and achieve huge savings for the health system.

Reminder systems and training

Other interventions discussed at the Symposium included a reminder system for appointments and training for health professionals in how to communicate effectively with people with low health literacy.  These small and low cost changes can promote better outcomes for people at risk of developing serious conditions, such as obesity, and improve the efficiency of our health system overall.

To maximise the future well-being of our community and to get the best possible outcomes from our health system we need to act on these research findings and make health literacy a central component of all future health policies and programs.

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