Knowledge is power when it comes to better health

Research news
02 August 2018

Sections of the population struggle to access and translate healthcare-related information into action, a Deakin University study has found.

A study on health literacy among women has found people from lower socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, as well as those born overseas, are less likely to have the right kind of information to effectively manage their health.

“Socially disadvantaged population groups often face a number of barriers that make finding and utilising health information and services particularly difficult,” said lead author Dr Sarah Hosking from the Epi-Centre for Healthy Ageing from the IMPACT Strategic Research Centre.

“These individuals need to find information on price, how much is covered by Medicare, what would need to be paid upfront and when they can expect to be reimbursed. All this makes accessing healthcare far more complicated for them. That means the way information and healthcare are provided can make a huge difference. Clear and concise information and easy-to-navigate systems are the best way to help.”

The researchers also found that low health literacy is linked to risk factors for developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, reflecting similar research results from other parts of the world.

“When someone doesn’t have the tools they need to manage their health on a day-to-day basis, it’s far more likely they will struggle to engage in behaviours that promote good health, such as being physically active or quitting smoking,” Dr Hosking said.

“This can contribute to chronic disease in later life.”

Evidence for the importance of health literacy has been building in recent years. It is defined as having access to information about health that is easily understood and being able to use it to look after yourself and your family. A 2009 United Nations Ministerial Declaration highlighted that actionable knowledge about health was significant for ensuring well-being and called for action plans for promoting health literacy.

Beyond individuals and their immediate families, high levels of health literacy are thought to have societal benefits because it empowers communities to address the social, economic and environmental determinants of health.

Women participating in the research reported feeling more confident about understanding health information and felt understood and supported by their health-care provider, but said they faced difficulty navigating the health-care system and being able to sort through the information to decide what was of good quality and useful for managing health.

For the past five years, Dr Hosking has been promoting health literacy awareness in local health organisations through her involvement with the Health Literacy Strategy Reference Group at Barwon Health, in collaboration with Barwon Health Community Mental Health Services. She has also been giving educational workshops and presentations for Barwon Health and local health insurer and health-care provider GMHBA.

Barwon Health has been developing a framework to ensure health information and services are delivered in ways that address health literacy barriers and make them accessible to everyone.

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