What is the link between health literacy and COVID-19 prevention in Papua New Guinea?
What is health literacy?
Health literacy is the degree to which a person is able to obtain, communicate, process the information and understand basic health information and services so that he/she is able to make appropriate health decisions. Health literacy therefore is influenced by general educational and literacy level of the person (must be able to read and write), general mental health status, must have access to digital or print health education materials and have a general understanding of the healthcare system in his/her community.
How helpful is health literacy skills?
We need health literacy skills to process and understand different forms and types of health information. Good health literacy helps to find valid health information and services. This information can be a notice, an awareness message, a policy statement by government or a new health law. Health information is everywhere in different forms – digital or print. Health literacy is critical for understanding the health information, understanding consequences and therefore making appropriate health decisions. Without good health literacy skills, people make bad health decisions. Low health literacy skills in a community are one of the reasons why health awareness messages fail to change public behavior.
Health literacy is also critical for service providers (doctors, nurse, dentists, pharmacists, etc). These professionals also need good health literacy skills to help people find information and services, communicate effectively about health and healthcare, help people understand health information, understand health related questions when asked, understand how to provide useful information and services and decide which information and services is appropriate for different situations and people that they come in contact with. So qualifying to be a healthcare professional alone is not adequate to provide quality healthcare services. Additional skills are required. Effective communication skills being a key skill that healthcare professionals need to learn.
Low health literacy is linked to poor health outcomes
There is now a large body of medical research evidence that show low health literacy is related to poor health outcomes. For example low health literacy is associated with more hospitalizations, greater use of emergency care, poor immunization status, poor adherence to medications, poor ability to interpret medicine labels, underutilization of preventive services and poor decision making when choosing healthcare providers. These are just some of the poor health outcomes that have been studied.
How do we improve health literacy?
Basic reading, writing, comprehension, critical analysis and communication skills are all needed to improve health literacy. General literacy skills are linked to health literacy therefore our literacy levels need to improve. Everything else depends on this foundation skill.
A good place to start is in our schools. Basic health education can be taught in our schools. It can be from basic hygiene skills to understanding the human body and how it functions. Information about diseases and their causes can also be taught in higher grades. An overview of our healthcare system and how it functions (with its challenges) also need to be taught in our schools.
We need to identify in our communities where health literacy is at its lowest and initiate targeted health messages for these groups. For example the elderly, ethnic minority or displaced, low income families, those who are unable to read and understand English.
While we are pushing our COVID-19 prevention messages, let us be mindful of the different groups of people reading the messages and tailor the messages according to their level of health literacy.
Dr Rodney Itaki, MBBS, BMedSci
Pacific Family Health Journal features every Wednesday on PNGBUZZ.COM
View Dr Itaki’s blog here