Addressing health literacy issues could help to prevent illness and early deaths, improve health system efficiencies, and help to protect patient safety and quality of care, according to a visiting health literacy expert.
Dr Rima Rudd, from the Harvard School of Public Health, was the keynote speaker at New Zealand's first ever health literacy conference, held in Auckland this week.
She told conference delegates that in New Zealand, as in many other industrialised nations, about half of adults have difficulty using print materials to accomplish everyday tasks with accuracy. This has serious and well documented consequences for health.
Dr. Rudd noted that the real problem was the mismatch between the skills of average New Zealanders and the demands of the health sector and she stressed the health system and health professionals must take action to correct this mismatch.
"There is too great a mismatch between the literacy demands being placed upon people using health services, and people's ability to understand and make decisions based on the information provided."
Dr Rudd said this had significant implications for people's health and wellbeing, and for the health system itself. Outcomes directly attributable to health literacy issues ranged from illness and early deaths, through to inefficient use of health system resources.
For example, poor instructions could result in people taking their medication incorrectly; operating theatres could be lying idle because patients were not given clear information about important pre-operative procedures; or patients might repeatedly require medical assistance because health professionals were not clear about how to manage chronic conditions such as diabetes or gout."
"I encourage health professionals to look closely at howe they talk to and write for the public, and examine health systems to see whether information provided is accessible and whether the processes are clearly explained," she said.
"There will be an excellent return on the time invested in consulting with end users and communities to ensure written materials are easy to understand and follow."
Dr Rudd referred to a United States example that could equally apply here, where a colonoscopy clinic was losing money because theatres were lying idle because many patients did not undertake the complex preparation required before the procedure could take place.
"Fixing the problem was simple. All information was rewritten, reviewed and pilot tested with patients. It saved the clinic many thousands of dollars and meant patients ultimately got better health outcomes because they had their tests in a timely manner."
She went on add: "I despair at the large racks of pamphlets I see in many hospitals and waiting rooms. They are an outrageous waste of money because most of them are completely missing the mark with their intended audiences."
Dr Rudd said it was vital that health professionals and policy makers took immediate action to close the gap between the health literacy demands being placed on people, and people's current knowledge and skills.
"Failure to do so is costing lives, money and resources; taking a 'business as usual' approach is therefore unethical."
The Ministry of Health defines health literacy as "the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions". It includes:
how an individual navigates and interacts with our complex health system
people's expectations about health and well-being
their understanding of health messages, medicine labels and nutrition information
their ability to fill out medical forms their ability to talk with their doctor and ask questions.
Ministry of Health research* has identified that more than half of New Zealand adults have poor health literacy skills. These people come from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds.
People with low health literacy:
are less likely to use prevention services
have less knowledge of their illness, treatment, and medicines
are less likely to recognise the first signs of medical problems
are less likely to manage their long-term/chronic condition
are less likely to communicate their concerns to health professionals
are more likely to be hospitalised due to a chronic condition
are more likely to use emergency services, and
are more vulnerable to workplace injury.
* (Korero Marama, 2010)
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