Individuals acquire knowledge about health and disease from diverse sources such as elders, friends, relatives, media, and healthcare workers. Online platforms provide unlimited access to health information, but misinformation, exemplified during the Covid pandemic, poses a challenge. The ability to access accurate health knowledge and the application of it in their own health promotion and management, collectively referred to as ‘health literacy’ stands as a pivotal determinant of people’s well-being.

Foundational elements of health literacy encompass a basic understanding of health and disease, wellness or illness, knowledge about various determinants of health (genetic, lifestyle, socio-economic, environmental, commercial, etc.), and concepts like health promotion, health assessment, screening for silent diseases, and disease prevention. Skills in using point of care (PoC) diagnostic, wearable or external monitoring tools, digital applications in self-assessment and self-management are further empowering people to take control of their health.

Governments hold the responsibility to impart public health literacy, offering the right health information, to empower communities and shield them from misinformation. To disseminate this knowledge at scale, community health volunteers and frontline workers are best positioned by leveraging digital information and communication technologies.

Informed patients and families can make right choices in seeking healthcare and holding providers and payers (public or private) accountable. They bridge information asymmetry on the quality of services and ensure governments are accountable for health system performance and protect against public health threats.

Amidst the risk of misinformation propagated by vested interests, patients are at a risk of incorrect assessments of their illnesses and misinterpretation of results from point of care devices, leading to heightened anxiety, unnecessary seeking of healthcare, self-modification of treatment and self-referrals to specialists and tests. Access to authentic health information from trusted sources becomes imperative in countering the infodemic of misinformation.

An underexplored aspect is whether health literacy genuinely improves people’s health and ensures better outcomes. Given the influence of an individual’s behavior on their lifestyles, health-seeking, and treatment adherence, health literacy tools should incorporate strategies that guide behavior in positive directions. Social media giants effectively deploy these tools to influence millions of their users in both right and wrong directions. While content for health literacy is common, who delivers it and how it is delivered has greater impact on how people learn and apply.

Parents and teachers play a key role in imparting health literacy to children, while peers and key opinion leaders (political leaders, actors, sportsperson, spiritual leaders etc.,) prove influential with adults. Community volunteers, though essential in health literacy, require proper training to educate effectively. Doctors, mandated to take well informed consent and treatment decisions, are best positioned to impart education on patients’ illnesses and influence their behavior.

Health and digital literacy have emerged as key determinants of health, contributing to new social divides. Existing health system strengthening frameworks do not give much emphasis on health literacy. While ministries of health have dedicated departments for information-education-communication (IEC), the budgets allocated and spent are meagre when compared to the importance of the task. Education efforts are tend to concentrate around targeted diseases and programs, often overlooking foundational health literacy.

Hence, urgent action is needed for policy and public awareness on health literacy. Health systems strengthening efforts should prioritize health literacy as one of core objectives, with regulations in place to protect against misinformation, particularly on social media and the internet, which has the potential to harm public health. A united push for advancing health literacy is the need of the hour.

Dr. Krishna Reddy
CEO, ACCESS Health International

Photo Credits: https://idronline.org/article/health/five-things-public-health-can-learn-from-education/

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