-Varun Sharma

Health literacy is the term used to describe the ability to engage with health information and services. It refers to an individual’s ability to obtain, understand, and apply health information to make informed decisions and take appropriate actions regarding their health. It plays an important role in how well individuals can access the health system and receive quality care. This promotes individual empowerment, thus improving overall health outcomes. In recent years, health literacy has gained recognition as a vital component of public health efforts, as it directly influences people’s ability to navigate healthcare systems, adopt preventive measures, and manage chronic conditions effectively.

Education improves lives. Reading and writing are precious skills for many people in the world, and can have long-lasting benefits for future generations. We have learned from our public health experiences that educating women reduces child mortality and improves maternal and child health. However, understanding health-related information requires knowledge, experience, and skills, and accessibility of health information. This means that information needs to be not only available, but also readable and comprehensible. Health literacy refers to the personal characteristics and social resources needed for individuals and communities to access, understand, appraise and use information and services to make decisions about health, or decisions that have implications for health. Health literacy includes the capacity to communicate, assert and enact these decisions.

Health literacy is beyond mere reading and writing health concepts. It ultimately means clear and fine communication. First, it helps in improving a person’s ability to find information. There are thousands of sources of information available today because of the internet boom. Better communication builds an understanding of where to capture the accurate information from.

Impact of low health literacy levels

Low health literacy has been found to be associated with lesser use of preventive services, and excessive use of emergency services, with high costs and dismal outcomes. Besides increased hospitalisation, patients with poor health literacy have high incidence of adverse drug reactions and nearly two-fold higher risk of death.

Low health literacy is associated with failure to seek timely medical help, lower rate of vaccination in children, increased burden of sexually transmitted diseases in the youth, the inability to interpret and follow up with prescribed medication for the elderly, and consequently higher morbidity. Low health literacy levels have significant implications for individuals and communities.

People with low health literacy are more likely to engage in risky behaviours, have higher rates of emergency room visits, and experience poorer health outcomes. They may struggle to access appropriate healthcare services, understand health insurance options, or effectively communicate with healthcare providers. Furthermore, limited health literacy contributes to health disparities, as disadvantaged populations often face additional barriers to accessing and understanding health information.

Health Literacy promotes health equity

Effective healthcare communication also contributes to health equity. It helps in improving the quality of services for culturally and linguistically diverse populations such as in India. Communication when viewed and done in a cultural context can help achieve a culturally competent and comprehensive quality care. Further, by applying the science of communication, there is even a possibility of bringing down the costs associated with health. Prevention of chronic illnesses can be made more prominent among the general public through effective tools of communication. Developing health literacy early in life could bring lifelong lessons and benefits, making schools an appropriate environment to introduce health literacy programmes.

There is evidence that implementing health literacy programmes early in life can be efficient and effective. Fostering health literacy from an early age has been shown to reduce the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, improve lifestyle choices, reduce obesity and risky behaviours, with early action transcending into impact during adulthood. A connection has been established between health literacy among adolescents and improved health behaviours. The inclusion of health literacy within education programmes may prove cost-effective, may result in improved health and education outcomes and may be a factor in contributing to economic prosperity.

The role of technology in promoting health literacy

Digital technologies are already transforming health literacy. The internet, social media and apps are widely used sources of health information. Meanwhile, emerging technologies are likely to have a further impact on people’s engagement with health information. For example: the role of artificial intelligence in powering chatbots with personalised solutions; the use of voice technologies facilitating our interactions with technology; wearables which capture personalised data and produce timely health data. As patients deal with increasingly complex health information in digital formats, individuals will need to be ready to constantly update their skills and engage in continuous learning.

Technology creators, on the other hand, should ensure patients’ needs and concerns guide design processes. Through the times, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media tools to circulate health messages has grown significantly, and continues to trend upward and speedily. Using social media tools has become an active way to enlarge reach and spread, foster engagements and increase access to reliable, science-based health memoranda. The Assimilating social media into health communication campaigns and activities allows health communicators to influence social dynamics and networks to encourage participation, conversation and community, altogether can help spread key messages and help in the influence of health decision making.

Health Literacy in India

Many nations are working towards creating strategies to address the problems brought on by the gap in health literacy. India shares with other countries the major issue of low or poor health literacy levels among its populace. But why is India’s health literacy so low? The number one reason has been the legacy of acute ailments which required a one-time treatment not needing the patient or his caregivers to engage. However, as India transitions to chronic ailments, the mind-set needs to change from just treatment to patient management.

Unfortunately, hospitals and doctors continue to treat all ailments the same with no focus on educating the patient. Moreover, low literacy is the result of a number of socio-economic factors. According to reports, poverty has the most effect on India’s level of health literacy. Delivering reliable health information is a challenging task because a sizable portion of the population is not literate. 50 crore Indians stay in villages with less than 5,000 population making access and education a herculean task. Any progress made in this area will help alleviate additional risk factors. While we are slowly making progress, India is still far behind the rest of the world in its capacity to make the people understand their health.

Universal Health Literacy

Universal Health Literacy (UHL), which accounts for more comprehensive understanding, aims to influence not only individual lifestyle decisions, but also raises community awareness of the determinants of health, and encourages individual and community actions, which may lead to modification of these determinants. It goes beyond a narrow concept of reading pamphlets or school health education and addresses the environmental, political and social factors that determine promotion as well as maintenance of good health for all. The skills under UHL include:  reading, writing, listening, speaking, numeracy, and critical analysis, as well as communication and interaction skills in the areas of health, healthcare, health administration and patient education. It also includes the study of working conditions (exposure to common pollutants and dangerous substances such as lead, asbestos, mercury), as well as physical demands (carrying heavy load etc.), besides the availability of basic needs like adequate and clean water, proper breathing and enough oxygen, appropriate food, right exercises, exposure to sunshine, peace of mind etc.

Efforts to promote Health Literacy in India

Enhancing health literacy requires concerted efforts from multiple stakeholders to simplify health information, improve communication, implement educational programs, promote digital health literacy, and collaborate with community organizations. By addressing health literacy challenges, we can empower individuals, reduce health disparities, and ultimately improve health outcomes for all.

In a bid to improve the health literacy of people and to serve as a single point of access for consolidated health information, Government launched an online platform in India: The National Health Portal. The portal aims to make this as a single point access for authenticated health information for citizens, students, healthcare professionals and researchers. In the Indian context, health awareness is also promoted through campaigns such as Fit India and Swachh Bharat Clean School and partially, through ASHA, POSHAN Abhiyaan programmes and “Mitras”.

Picture Credits: – Lifeology

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