Online tool to challenge health illiteracy

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The European Commission next year plans to challenge poor health literacy levels in Europe with a new internet-based tool called Health in Europe: Information and Data Interface.

The new 'HEIDI' site is intended to be a one-stop-shop on health information and data, updated by public health experts, researchers, civil society and national authorities.

The move has been planned over a long period but is being sped up in light of a recent report that half of all Europeans have inadequate or problematic levels of health literacy – with some glaring difference between member states. This could include taking the wrong dose of medication because of misunderstood information about the prescription.

The study was conducted by a consortium led by Maastricht University, using data on health literacy across eight European countries: Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, Poland and Spain.

It measured the ability of people to access, understand, analyse and apply health information to take decisions allowing them to maintain their health, prevent diseases and seek treatment in case of illness.

Nearly half (47%) of people surveyed showed limited health literacy, but there were sharp differences between countries – ranging from 1.6% inadequate levels of health literacy in the Netherlands to 26.3% in Bulgaria.

Health literacy saves money

The project leader, Professor Helmut Brand, told EURACTIV that low health literacy costs the US economy between $106 billion and $236 billion annually as people without knowledge of health issues are more likely to be hospitalised, to experience medication and treatment errors, and not seek preventive care.

“Our survey shows that this is also a significant problem in Europe and that it’s high time for Europeans to react,” Brand said.

In response to the survey, the European Health Literacy Consortium called for concrete actions from European and national policymakers as well as health professionals in order to empower citizens to increase their health literacy.

They pleaded for increased funding to support comprehensive health information and literacy, and to ensure they are considered as part of the selection criteria for EU funding.

Upcoming directive to cover health literacy

The issue is likely to be covered in a forthcoming directive designed to improve and expand how companies communicate to the public about medicines.

proposal to change the rules on providing medicinal information to patients was included in the 'pharmaceutical package' presented by the European Commission in December 2008 (EURACTIV 11/12/08). 

The controversial measures, which would allow pharmaceutical companies to provide information directly to consumers for the first time, was partly to blame for repeated delays to the long-awaited package of legislation. 

Critics say allowing companies to provide factual information on their own products will open the door to advertising of prescription drugs. Proponents of the plan say quality information in all EU languages should be provided so that consumers are not taken in by poor quality online information (EURACTIV 02/09/09).

“With its recently published proposal for a seven-year health programme, the European Commission seeks to promote ‘innovative and sustainable health systems’,” according to  MEP Christofer Fjellner (European People's Party, Sweden). “For citizens to benefit from such innovation to improve their health, we have to empower them to make use of the information and innovative services available to them,” Fjellner added.

In relation to the new Wikipedia tool, Health Commissioner John Dalli said: “Our aim with this tool is to provide health information in a way that is easy to access, easy to use and easy to understand for everybody.”

“I very much welcome the first-ever pan-European health literacy survey conducted under the leadership of Maastricht University and funded by the European Commission,” Dalli said at the launch of the survey results. “The results of this survey provide a sound evidence base to guide national, regional and European approaches to improve health literacy in the coming years.”

Research suggests that 1 in 10 patients take the wrong dose of medication because they misunderstand the information given to them during consultations with doctors and other health professionals.

This has serious public health consequences, as well as economic implications for health services.

Advocacy groups say investing in health literacy pays off in the long run and empowers patients to play a more active role in managing their health care.

This will become increasingly important as chronic diseases – such as diabetes and asthma – rise. Patients will be expected to manage their own conditions at home rather than relying on daily contact with health professionals.

  • Irish National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA)web pages

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