Health literacy needs support, now more than ever

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought healthcare guidelines and scientific advances front-of-mind on a global scale, in the process highlighting long-standing gaps in health literacy as well as an opportunity for pharma.

It’s long been known that many people struggle to access, understand and use health information and services to make decisions about their health.

As the WHO noted in 2013: “Knowledge societies in the 21st century confront a health decision-making paradox. People are increasingly challenged to make healthy lifestyle choices and manage their personal and family journeys through complex environments and health care systems but are not being prepared or supported well in addressing these tasks.”

Just how unprepared people are has been laid bare time after time. According to the 2012 European Health Literacy Survey, 29% to 62% of people across eight EU member states had inadequate or problematic health literacy.

And that’s before national television briefings began on COVID’s ‘R number’, an ever-mutating set of restrictive rules and an evolving understanding of the science behind a novel coronavirus first identified on 7 January 2020.

Alongside COVID’s devastating effects, 2020 also saw a raging misinformation pandemic as fake science and conspiracy theories spread rampantly online, often peddled by those in power, such as the former US president Donald Trump.

“In times of uncertainty and ‘fake news’, it is our responsibility to provide guidance and clarity to our patients and consumers”

A challenge to self-care

The spread of health misinformation at a time when we are increasingly expected to practice self-care wherever possible has been a particularly pernicious modern development and has turbo-charged dangerous ‘anti-vax’ ideas.

Filippo Lanzi is EMEA regional head for GSK Consumer Healthcare. His company is one of those in pharma looking to help improve health literacy and support people to manage their everyday health.

“In times of uncertainty and ‘fake news’, it is our responsibility to provide guidance and clarity to our patients and consumers,” he said.

“If we want to overcome misinformation and improve health literacy, we need to explain science to people in a way they understand, using the right channel, at the right time, so they can make informed decisions and find the products and sources of information they know they can trust.”

However, a GSK-commissioned study on the health-economic benefits of self-care in Europe published last month found that poor health literacy continues to pose a major challenge to self-care.

It revealed that 80% of Europeans accept that it is their responsibility to manage their own health and are willing to do so, but only 2 in 10 feel very confident in managing their own health.

Discussing the study’s findings Professor Lieven Annemans, senior full professor health economics at Ghent University, said: “Better health literacy creates empowered individuals who can take better control of their own health and make the right choices. There is a clear opportunity for governments, health systems, regulators and healthcare professionals to work together to remove this barrier in order to enable people to engage in self-care with confidence.”

An ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and fake news

Alongside pharma efforts to highlight the scale of the health literacy problem and work towards solutions, it’s clear that the problem of misinformation requires action from both governments and the tech giants that have allowed it to spread almost unchecked.

Facebook said in March it had been “taking aggressive steps to stop misinformation and harmful content from spreading” ever since the WHO declared COVID-19 to be a global public health emergency at the beginning of 2020.

In a sign that more concerted action was needed, in April the social network started displaying messages in people’s News Feeds if they had interacted with COVID-related posts subsequently deemed to have violated its policies. In June it started providing more context to COVID-related links and in September it introduced a forwarding limit to its Messenger service.

Those steps were followed in October with a new global policy that banned any adverts that would discourage people from getting vaccinated, whether for COVID, the flu or anything else. “We don’t want these ads on our platform,” the company noted, somewhat belatedly.

Meanwhile, Google started this year with the launch of a $3 million fund to tackle misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

Alexios Mantzarlis, news and information credibility lead at Google News Lab, said: “The uncertainty and developing nature of the coronavirus pandemic continues to generate related misinformation. The global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is exacerbating a perennial problem of misinformation about immunisation.”

The company’s new fund is global in scope and open to news organisations with a proven track record in fact-checking and debunking activities as it aims to broaden the audience of fact checks, particularly to those who may be disproportionately affected by misinformation.

Individuals too have an important role to play, and the WHO has seven tips to help people flatten what it calls the ‘infodemic’ curve.

Pharma’s chance to help

Starting with prescribing information and packaging leaflets, there is a huge opportunity to make health information clearer and easier to understand.

Efforts are afoot to do so and it’s something the Patient Information Forum (PIF) aims to support through the health information accreditation scheme it launched last year.

“One of the things that COVID-19 has really highlighted is how important health literacy is. Materials don’t just need to be evidence based, they also need to be easy to use and understand,” Sophie Randall, PFI’s head of strategy and partnership told pharmaphorum.

“Industry has been under pressure from the EMA to improve the health literacy of prescribing information and packaging leaflets. We know that is complicated because of regulation, but we also think they can rise to the challenge.”

Beyond that pharma companies could be looking to harness their decades of experience in disease awareness for health literacy materials or easy-to-understand vaccine information. This could build on the industry’s already sterling efforts in working against COVID and there’s certainly a clear need for it.

About the author

Dominic-TyerDominic Tyer is a journalist and editor specialising in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. He is currently pharmaphorum’s interim managing editor and is also creative and editorial director at the company’s specialist healthcare content consultancy pharmaphorum connect. Connect with Dominic on LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram.