The issue of health illiteracy has been a cause for concern globally, especially within the medical community. According to WHO, health literacy refers, generally, to the ability of individuals to gain access to, understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health.

Hence, health literacy is more than simply reading and understanding a drug bottle label and/or medical information. In fact, people with better health literacy can opt to make better decisions for self-care including a safe environment, healthy lifestyle choices, better preventive measures against diseases and proper safety and emergency responses.

Although WHO did not include any specific target to raise health literacy in their Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it was completely recognised that any efforts to improve health literacy will be crucial in the social, economic and environmental ambitions of the 2030 Agenda for SDGs.

The role of doctors in enhancing health illiteracy

As the doctor is at the front line of healthcare, it is crucial to take initiatives in improving health literacy among patients.

1. Address the misconception

Every doctor should play a role in clearing any misconceptions that the patient may have. The explanations provided should also be tailored to each patient based on his or her educational background.

It will be ideal for doctors to keep related brochures in their office that they can give to their patients when necessary.

2. Effective communication

Doctors should be able to communicate effectively with their patients. The first step is to use clear, understandable language, and leave out medical jargon and terminology as much as possible.

In addition, doctors can break complex information into a few chunks of facts and organise them in a simple and concise manner. Essentially, the most important details should be mentioned to the patient first.

Doctors must also be able to communicate the medical information (which is usually in English) into the language spoken by the patient precisely. It is also useful to include a picture, drawing, and/or model to better describe complex ideas or information.

Many methods have been suggested to facilitate better patients’ understanding such as the “Teach-back technique”, which requires the patient to repeat the information explained earlier.

The role of health agencies in enhancing health literacy

Health organisations, be it governmental or non-governmental, can play a part by implementing health awareness campaigns, being involved in policy making, and conducting medical research.

1. Improve usability of medical information

Health agencies need to make sure that the medical information is easily accessible to patients. Additionally, the information should be appropriate for its target users.

The supplementation of instruction with a picture has been shown to be effective. For example, in 2001, Canada introduced strong pictorial health warnings on the outside of cigarette boxes. One evaluation found that Canadian smokers who had read, thought about and discussed the new labels were more likely to have stopped, made an attempt to stop or reduce their smoking three months later.

2. Address the issue at the primary level

Health agencies should also invest in educating children. However, this effort will require strategic planning and action. Issues of bad choices due to health illiteracy such as alcohol drinking, drug use, and smoking can be prevented in a more efficient manner through early education as early as primary school level.

Needless to say, education level also plays an important role in improving health literacy. According to the National Centre for Health Statistics in 2012, at the age of 25, adults without a high school diploma are expected to die nine years sooner than college graduates. Thus, health agencies should make sure that each person gets the basic education level and reduce the percentage of students dropping out of college. MIMS

Read more:
Health illiteracy: What are the causes?
A pause before writing a patient off as being non-compliant
How to improve patient compliance for medications