New EU rules designed to improve medical information available to patients will fail unless levels of health literacy are improved across Europe, MEPs and health campaigners warn.
The European Parliament will vote on a draft report by Swedish MEP Christofer Fjellner later this year which will highlight the importance of providing information in a consumer-friendly format.
Fjellner is keen to reaffirm Europe's opposition to advertising prescription medicines and may allow member states to decide how best to provide quality information to the public.
In Sweden an industry-run service known as FASS is seen as an authoritative source of user-friendly information. However, other countries may prefer to ask medicine regulators to provide this kind of service.
Patients unable to handle medical information
At a debate on health literacy yesterday (23 June) hosted in the European Parliament with the support of MSD, health groups said the issue should be given prominence in the new directive and factored into all European health legislation.
The challenge of raising health literacy is currently being measured in an EU-funded survey, which is due to report initial results in October. Previous research undertaken at national level suggests that as few as one in five people fully understand all the information they receive from healthcare professionals.
Of those who do not understand what they are told, just 43% say they would ask for clarification if details are unclear. This, say campaigners, leads patients to take the wrong doses of medicines and undermines citizens' ability to make informed decisions about their health.
While low levels of adult literacy can be a barrier to grasping vital details about medicines, poor standards of numeracy can also cause problems, especially when it comes to understanding risks.
Literacy problem exacerbating health inequalities
Patient groups say raising health literacy will help empower patients and iron out inequalities across the EU – adult literacy rates tend to be higher in northern Europe than in southern and eastern states.
This has become a particularly pressing problem given the rise in chronic conditions such as diabetes, where patients are often expected to manage their own diseases.
There are also calls to have the definition of health literacy broadened to include food and other non-prescription health products. Campaigners want the scope of the Information to Patients Directive widened beyond its current focus on the heavily-regulated medicines sector.
While tackling literacy rates in schools and through adult education courses is part of the solution, health professionals are also coming under pressure to improve communication skills.
Academics and patient lobbies say medical schools must devote more time to doctor-patient communication rather than speaking in technical jargon. Providing patients with written material to take home from medical consultations has also been proposed as a means of helping people digest complex information.
The first European Health Literacy Survey is currently underway and will be completed in eight countries by September. Initial results are expected at the Gastein Health Forum in October, with a final report due next year.