In a speech to a recent Brussels conference on health literacy, Health Commissioner John Dalli said: “Low health literacy is a particular issue of concern amongst older people. This is why the European Innovation Partnership has singled-out health literacy as one of the areas for enabling innovation in healthy ageing.”
Dalli said that the aim of the Partnership is: “To help empower older people to understand for themselves the real value of medicines, tests and treatments – and take charge, as 'co-managers', of their own health.”
“Health literacy clearly has a major role to play in managing chronic diseases and help operate a shift towards more preventive strategies, Dalli told the conference, adding: “Research shows that people with inadequate health literacy are less knowledgeable about the importance of preventive health measures and are therefore more likely to be admitted to hospital.”
Bulgarian liberal MEP Dr. Antonyia Parvanova said a health-literate population could transform how health services are delivered.
"For decades we have put too much emphasis on what health systems and health professionals can do for patients. We will have to look at how informed patients can help themselves in areas like smoking cessation and chronic disease management," she said.
Irish liberal MEP Pat the Cope Gallagher said empowering people to understand simple health information enables patients to make crucial decisions.
He said Irish research had revealed that an estimated one in ten patients has taken the wrong dose of medicines because they misunderstood information given to them about drugs.
"Member states spend between 10% and 15% of their budget on health care. However, even in times of financial austerity, I would hope health literacy funding is something that will not be cut because it helps ensure resources are used efficiently by empowered citizens," Gallagher said.
Anders Olauson, president of the European Patients' Forum, said providing quality information to patients and boosting health literacy should be core elements of all European health legislation. Improving literacy is also fundamental to tackling inequalities across Europe, he added.
Olauson said patients supported the current proposal for a directive on information to patients but it should be widened.
"At present the proposal is very narrow as it focuses only on prescription medicines. We need to embark on an information-to-patients strategy in which health literacy is embedded," he said.
Olauson said there was a core of support for health literacy in the European Parliament but this must be translated into action.
Helmut Brand, head of the International School for Public Health and Primary Care at Maastricht University, is currently working on the European Health Literacy Survey. Ironing out differences in health literacy levels between member states could go some way to closing the gaps in life expectancy in Europe, he suggested.
He advocates using new communication technologies to engage the public. "We should use new media and networks for targeting social marketing," said Brand.
Luiza Bara, director for policy and strategy at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), said it is important to regulate the information provided to patients in order to ensure that it is accurate.
She said health literacy is about more than just pharmaceutical products and can be broadened to include food labelling. Consumer information on food can influence what people choose to buy and this, in turn, has a major impact on public health, according to Bara.
"However, it's not just about how information is regulated. Healthcare professionals need to improve their communication skills and this is something that should be prioritised by medical schools," she said.
Ilona Kickbursch, director of the Global Health Programme at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, said health literacy is a critical skill in the 21st century. She said there is a clear EU policy basis for tackling the problem, noting that Europe has committed itself to "healthier, safer, more confident citizens".
This, said, Kickbursch, touches on everything from health promotion to managing chronic diseases.
She said making healthy eating choices, choosing health insurers and processing medical information all require a higher level of understanding.
"The increase in chronic diseases is changing health care. The system is not equipped to empower patients to self-manage ongoing medical conditions," said Kickbursch.
Teaching life skills in school – such as how to cook, shop and making healthy choices – should become part of the curriculum, according to the Switzerland-based researcher, who added that there may even be a role for a new kind of expert to bridge the gap between specialists and the public.
"We might need to look at a new kind of professional that can broker information. Patients also need independent advice from patient centres," she said.
Jennifer Lynch, project coordinator of the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) in Ireland, said adult literary services have increased in recent years from a low base. Nonetheless, most adult literacy classes in Ireland are provided by volunteers and just two hours tuition per week are available to those who need it.
An OECD study on literacy found that 23% of people who were shown a medicine bottle could not say how often the drug should be taken, said Lynch.
Age is a factor in literacy, she said, with older populations tending to have generally lower standards of formal education. Lifestyle matters too – people with below par literacy levels are more likely to watch more than five hours of television and less likely to read newspapers. "This supports the idea that if you don't use your literacy skills you will lose them," said Lynch.
Raising awareness of health literacy among health professionals can help doctors appreciate the importance of clear communication. "Health literacy should be integrated into undergraduate training in medical schools," Lynch said.
The research also suggests simple ways to improve communication, such as providing written information for people to take with them after consulting medical professionals.