Improving health literacy is in pharma’s interests

Views & Analysis
doctor is sending  result of medical test to patient on tablet computer

Patients who understand the information provided about their health are more likely to adhere to a medicine regime and feel empowered to take steps towards healthier lifestyles. To what extent are pharma companies taking the initiative? Amanda Barrell reports.

In meeting rooms in galaxies not so far away, pharma executives once said it was the role of advocacy groups to provide health information. It was the role of pharma, they continued, to make money for the shareholders.

But the world has changed in the last few years, and the industry realises that to be truly ‘patient centric’ it must play its part in the health education of the people who rely on its medications.

Health literacy, or the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process and understand the basic health information needed to make appropriate health decisions, is low.

In England, between 43% and 61% of working-age adults routinely do not understand the health information they are given.

Jonathan Berry, Personalisation and Control Specialist in NHS England’s Person-Centred Care Team, said: “Our system provides oral and written information to patients of such complexity that it far exceeds people’s functional skills in language, literacy and numeracy, and therefore their ability to make sense of it and act on it.”

Providing this information in a way that people understand empowers patients, which can only be a good thing for pharma companies.

Business sense

Low health literacy is often associated with poor adherence, and healthcare professionals may see poor adherence as a barrier to prescription in some cases.

In the US, where direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising is the norm, people with higher levels of health literacy are more likely to ask their health team about products they have seen marketed.

While no direct comparison can be made with the UK’s more tightly-regulated market, we know that those who are more engaged in their healthcare are more aware of the available treatments.

Put simply, informed, empowered patients make better consumers of medication. And, globally, pharma is taking action.

Global initiatives

Merck, Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline, among others, have publicly stated their commitment to improving health literacy and making health information easier to understand.

Pfizer said in a statement: “It is a crisis of understanding medical information more than a problem of access to information.

“Patients and families who struggle to understand health information have a difficult time following medical recommendations and are at greater risk for health problems – which, in turn, has a negative effect on health outcomes and the entire healthcare system.”

Last year, The Novartis Foundation launched the Better Hearts, Better Cities initiative, currently being piloted in Brazil, Mongolia and Senegal. It aims to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease in low- and middle-income countries through a multi-agency programme of hypertension prevention, management and control.

Astellas has updated its health literacy standards and committed to making all future patient-facing materials better reflect the needs of the people who need them.

Change is possible

“Easy-to-understand materials help patients and their caregivers recognise what they need to know and do, such as obtaining the care they need and following medical advice accurately, so that treatment is both therapeutically effective and cost-effective,” said the company’s executive director of Patient Experience in the USA, Doug Noland.

For a person to be at the centre of their own care, they need to be an empowered manager of their own treatment – they need to be willing and comfortable, states the Patient Information Forum (PiF):

“Such an empowered patient will have sufficient health literacy… to be able to engage with information materials [and] be able to understand the implications of their condition and the treatment options.

“Accessible, trustworthy information and the encouragement to use it are the key,” the organisation said in the report Knowledge is Power, published last year.

And with pharma working with advocacy groups and healthcare systems to produce this information, improved health literacy is not out of reach.

Look out for more on this topic in the upcoming Deep Dive: Patient centricity II edition, which is publishing soon. Sign up here to ensure you receive your free copy direct to your inbox.

About the author:

Amanda Barrell is a freelance writer.

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Linda Banks