Health Literacy and Public Health
Carolina Jimenez, RN
Increasingly complex health care systems require individuals to assume a high degree of autonomy and employ self-management strategies to achieve their best health. Health literacy is one primary skill useful in navigating such complex systems. To date, there is no commonly accepted definition of health literacy in either academic or grey literature. It is a relatively new concept and ambiguities prevail.
Originally defined as literacy skills such as reading, writing and numeracy in the health domain, some sources claim that health literacy has evolved into a more fluid and multidimensional concept. For example, older concepts of health literacy often oppose newer progressive models, which posit that cognitive-affective and decision-making skills are vital. These information-processing skills extend beyond a clinical setting into health literacy practices that recognize culture, context and language. Health literacy discourse is conflicting, and no conclusive agreement exists about the appropriate scope of its definition.
This patchwork of definitions and incongruences is problematic. Health illiteracy is associated with high levels of morbidity at the individual and societal levels (Speros, 2005). People with limited health literacy report a poorer understanding of and adherence to medical regimes, and poorer overall health. As such, they are more likely to be hospitalized, increasing demand on public services (Frisch, Camerini, Diviani & Schultz, 2012, p.117). Although data interestingly shows “health literacy is a stronger predictor of health status than socioeconomic status, age, or ethnic background” (Speros, 2005, p. 633), it must be acknowledged that health literacy and demographic attributes such as socioeconomic status, age and ethnic background do not work independently to predict health. Health illiteracy can be a detriment to the entire health care delivery system. A better understanding of health literacy and its constructs to date will enable public health workers and administrative staff to adapt health promotion initiatives and education programs. It will also facilitate adjusting health-related information and services to improve comprehensiveness and accessibility.
Public Health Model of Health Literacy
Newer definitions propose a broader definition of health literacy heavily founded in public health theory, highlighting health literacy as a personal and community asset. The perspective also has its roots in health promotion, biostatistics, epidemiology, environmental health sciences and the social and behavioural sciences (Smith, 2009). In the public health model of health literacy, its primary aim is to enable individuals and communities to exert greater control over the range of personal, social and environmental factors that promote health (Nutbeam, 2000). Here, health literacy is seen as of equal importance to community and clinical settings, and population and individual health (Smith, 2009). Health literacy not only enables the individual to “engage in a wider range of health enhancing actions which result in improved health outcomes,” but also enables a wider range of options and opportunities for health (Smith, 2009, Page 53-54). In this broader perspective, health literacy is a product of health promotion and education efforts, which fluctuate with time, opportunity, experience and resources (Frisch et al., 2012; Smith, 2009; Speros, 2005). It applies a very practical sociocultural view where health literacy is irrevocably shaped by critical reflection both at the individual and societal levels (Smith, 2009). Under this public health lens, the concept of cultural capital is highly applicable to health literacy: culture-related factors such as beliefs, behaviours and customs structure an individual’s and a community’s health accessibility and choices (Rustvold, 2012).
Using the Public Health Model of Health Literacy to Promote Health
We can consider health literacy from the public health standpoint as a personal and community asset to be built through health education and promotion interventions (Nutbeam 2008; Smith, 2009). Specifically, there is notable opportunity for community-based interventions to promote functional health literacy using the public health model of health literacy. Public health professionals should consider the public health model of health literacy when designing outreach programs, policies and community initiatives. By using such a model, they can create interventions that require stakeholders to apply health-related knowledge to maintain and promote health, instead of simply holding that knowledge (Smith, 2009). Interventions then should be centred on health education and promotion methods to promote functional health literacy, which can be measured and evaluated as health functioning level (Smith, 2009).
The foundation for physical, cognitive, social and emotional health is built in the early years of life (National Academy of Science/National Research Council, 2000). As such, investments in health promotion and educational initiatives directed at children have the opportunity to improve long-term health behaviour, and economic and civic outcomes (Smith, 2009). This is an important consideration as public health professionals have the opportunity to enhance and protect the health literacy of those at risk of developing health illiteracy. By the same token, public health professionals should consider who progresses to higher levels of health functioning and subsequently tailor interventions to those at risk of delayed or limited health functioning (Smith, 2009). Avenues for intervention should focus on impoverished environments, such as those that lack cognitive and affective stimulation, regardless of income since such settings are predictors of unhealthy behavior (Smith, 2009).
The evolution of health literacy from a concept that examines objective attributes such as reading and numeracy skills, to a holistic definition, as offered by WHO (2009) ,emphasizing the functional aspect of health literacy and basic literacy skills, is marked in both grey and academic literature (Oldfield, 2010). It is evident that as social and political conditions evolve, so too does the definition reflected in the literature. Basic literacy skills should not be undermined as they are fundamental to more recent and holistic definitions. However, clinical health literacy’s narrow view does not readily consider social and system factors in health, which we now know to be paramount to population health (Smith, 2009).
The public health model of health literacy shows promise in addressing individual and community disparities in complex and rapidly changing health systems; however, data supporting this notion is immature and often vague (Department of Health, New Brunswick, 2016). Birtler (2014), suggesting that integrating evidence-based aspects of cognitive behavioral science into public health education programs will increase the likelihood of individuals acting upon the information offered. Overall, there remains a lack of awareness and little agreement on the meaning of health literacy among practitioners, policy makers, adult literacy learners and the public (Canadian Public Health Association, 2008). Improving health literacy and health behaviours requires structured interventions with the support of these key stakeholders (Rustvold, 2012). Health literacy is a significant factor in health care disparity and equity, and must be addressed in health care reform. To support this change, providers must engage with and be accountable to key stakeholders, including patients and the population at large. We must be accountable for the determinants, such as health illiteracy, that impede access to timely and efficient primary care and health care.
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