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.
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).