The Internet is causing more problems for health literacy

Health literacy

The internet is a growing concern for health literacy. (Shutterstock)

This article is part of our special report 2014-2019: What Next for EU Healthcare.

SPECIAL REPORT: While policymakers, doctors and other health campaigners want to educate the public to take care of its health, the Internet is making the task ever more difficult. 

Health literacy refers to the capacity to make sound health decisions in the context of everyday life, both at home, in the community, at the workplace, in the healthcare system and in the political arena. It’s linked to general literacy, and it describes a person’s knowledge and ability to apply health information in order to make good decisions about their well-being.

However, with the emergence of new technologies, citizens will face more complex health decisions. 

Speaking at the European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG) on Thursday (2 October) P?teris Zigalvis, head of the EU Commission’s DG Connect’s Health and Wellbeing unit, said that for years the health community has called for ‘the empowered citizen’, but the citizen cannot be empowered to manage his or her own health if the person doesn’t have access to digital tools. Secondly, many don’t have the information on how to use these digital tools by themselves.

Zigalvis said that DG Connect is currently involved in a project that tries to develop a curriculum for ICT skills in the workforce. A Eurobarometer survey on e-health will likewise be launched at the end of October. According to the survey, 77% of EU citizens agree that the Internet is a good tool to improve their knowledge on related topics. However, 41% have never searched online resources for health-related information.

The most searched health topics on the Internet are general information about improving one’s own health, related to, for example, nutrition and physical activity. Many said that the information they found was relevant, but 41% of those polled said they didn’t think the information they found came from a trustworthy source.

Kaisa Immonen Charalambous, from the European Patients’ Forum, concurred that the Eurobarometer results were encouraging.

“For me, critical health literacy is crucial. We need to be able to distinguish what is good and trustworthy information, and what is not, because we are bombarded with so much information. There are many news articles about medical research that are presenting the research in a misleading way for example creating false expectations,” Immonen Charalambous said.

Karin Kadenbach, an Austrian Socialist member of the European Parliament, also called for reliable sources of information.

“We do have parts of the population who do not have enough information, or information that they understand. We do also have a big part of the population which uses the Internet, where there’s so much misinformation. For example, we should be at a stage now where there are no more measles in Europe anymore. However, we do have so many people who don’t vaccinate their children and immunisise them, because of some horror stories on the social media. So on one hand, there is information, but on the other, there is at least the double of misinformation,” Kadenbach stated. 

Targeting the right groups

Sylvain Giraud, head of DG Sanco’s Strategy and International unit, pointed out that the Commission has been aware of the problems related to the lack of health literacy for years.

“We recognise that health literacy is definitely something that needs to be taken into account when we develop health policies at an EU level. There’s clearly a correlation between social status and social level and literacy and health. So poor literacy is linked to poor health in many cases. This is something that needs to be taken into account in designing any health policy at any level. It needs to be taken into account properly from a health literacy perspective specifically, but also from a wider approach on health determinant. For example via education,” Giraud said.   

Ramazan Salman, director for Ethno-Medical Centre in Hannover, which works with migrants from seven different countries in Europe, said that there are still diverse groups in society who don’t have enough access to the healthcare.

“I think Europe has some of the best healthcare systems, but it makes no sense that there’s capacity, but people are not able to use it. In order to be able to use it… it depends on the health literacy,” Salman said.

Giraud added that in order to increase health literacy, information would have to be adapted to the language of the target group. Medical language should likewise be adapted to a lower level of literacy. Finally, stakeholders should also increase the general level of literacy and digital skills so that people can be better prepared to access health information.

Immonen Charalambous said that patient organisations can play a crucial role in improving health literacy.

“They regularly communicate with their patient community on the ground. They understand what patients need and want to know. They are also often good at putting complex issues like medical or scientific issues in a lay language. The barrier for them in order to take up their role is resources. They often work fully on a volunteer basis. So I wouldn’t have too big expectations if we were to put the burden of improving he alt literacy only on patient organisations, but they are certainly willing to contribute,” she concluded.

The Gastein Health Forum meeting in Austria is Europe's largest gathering of health policymakers.

After having discussed how to set up sustainable EU health systems in times of crisis, this year’s conference will focus on the EU election year and its consequences for public health.

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