Health Literacy gives us the right reading on health

It’s Health Literacy Month and Australia’s experience with COVID-19 has shown us just how important health literacy --- knowledge and community awareness about our health care --- has been to counter the pandemic, whether by public health measures, masks or vaccination.

The Consumers Health Forum has advocated more support for health literacy for some years because we know that being aware of our own and the community’s health needs is a key catalyst to a healthier society.

Having the knowledge to follow a healthy lifestyle and to support an effective health system often requires community support, particularly when it is needed most.

Earlier this year we released findings of a survey commissioned by CHF and NPS MedicineWise showing a significant number of consumers need to be supported to feel more in control of their health care. The report was commissioned to define and measure how health literacy varies across consumer segments. It identified gaps preventing people from accessing the best possible health care.

The survey of more than 1,500 respondents found that approximately one in five consumers:

  • Rarely or never felt comfortable asking their doctor, pharmacist or nurse when they needed more information.
  • Rarely or never felt comfortable asking the health professional to explain anything they didn’t understand.
  • Found the information a health professional gave them always or often confusing.

However, just over 70 per cent of respondents said they always or often felt comfortable communicating on such matters with health professionals.

The survey results support CHF and NPS MedicineWise efforts for higher levels of consumer medicines literacy. 

We are seeing that need play out right now with recent experience showing that it is people in disadvantaged communities who have been least likely to be vaccinated against COVID.  That thankfully is changing now that federal, state and territory governments are responding to the emerging need.  But in many parts of Australia, those most in need, including Indigenous people, those living with disabilities, and culturally and linguistically diverse communities are still more likely to have lower vaccination rates than other groups.

ACOSS in its submission to the Prime Minister last week, urging vaccination equity and economic supports for marginalised communities, is pressing for action to ensure high vaccination rates for at-risk groups before the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

ACOSS is concerned that restrictions would be lifted before securing safe vaccination rates for high-risk groups. These groups include people on low incomes, First Nations communities, people with disability, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and people in regional areas, particularly economically disadvantaged locations.

National Cabinet has still not released vaccination rates for people on low incomes. However, it is clear that people on low incomes face a range of barriers to securing vaccinations and are typically behind average vaccination rates despite being at far greater risk from COVID-19, ACOSS said in a statement.

The experience with varying rates of COVID vaccination underline the importance of health literacy and its connection to socio-economic status.  That experience should also persuade our political leaders of the importance of government support to promote health literacy.

Last year the Consumer Commission on COVID which CHF appointed, identified health literacy as a significant area in need of national attention.

The Commission called for a national health literacy strategy and a national social prescribing scheme as initiatives justifying government support. Apart from programs to improve health literacy across the population, the commission recommended training of health professionals to support communities where health literacy is low.

We need to increase consumers’ capacity to manage and feel in control of their health care, including their medicines. This is a challenge when we know that significant numbers of Australians appear to lack the capacity to access, understand, appraise and use crucial information to make health-related decisions.

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About the author

Leanne Wells

Leanne Wells

Chief Executive of the Consumers Health Forum of Australia