Navigating the Digital Health Landscape: The Crucial Role of Health Literacy

Health data are available at everyone's fingertips today. Francesca Borgonovi, Mark Pearson, Francesca Colombo and Michele Cecchini discuss the importance to understand, evaluate, and apply the information people encounter.
Navigating the Digital Health Landscape: The Crucial Role of Health Literacy
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Health data are available at everyone's fingertips today. Technologies, such as health apps, wearable devices, and online health platforms, provide all of us with unprecedented access to health information and to tools that allow us to monitor and manage our health and well-being. However, the effectiveness of these tools hinges on users’ ability to comprehend, evaluate, and apply the information encountered. Misinterpreting health data or relying on inaccurate information will result in wrong self-diagnosis, inadequate treatment adherence and misguided health decisions.

Technological developments and generative artificial intelligence might improve early disease detection and treatment options. But, in an era of rampant digital misinformation, individuals lacking strong health literacy skills risk becoming the victims of false and misleading claims, potentially compromising their health and the effectiveness of evidence-based medical practices.

Enhanced health literacy – which reflects the knowledge, motivation and skills required to access, comprehend, assess, and apply health information - empowers individuals to make informed decisions about their health, enabling them to harness technology effectively. By comprehending medical terms, understanding treatment options, and critically evaluating digital health information, individuals can optimise their engagement with technology-driven healthcare, leading to better health outcomes and improved overall well-being. Cultivating strong health literacy has become an essential tool for navigating the intricate intersection of medicine and innovation. At the societal level, improved health literacy can help healthcare systems reduce costs through better prevention and a more efficient use of healthcare resources.

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Unfortunately, evidence shows that health literacy levels are fairly low. According to the 2023 Skills Outlook on average, across the 15 OECD countries that took part in the European Health Literacy Population Survey 2019-2021 (HLS19), as many as 44% of respondents find it difficult or very difficult to judge the advantages and disadvantages of different treatment options. In addition, 42% find it difficult or very difficult to decide how to protect themselves from illness using information from the media, and 38% indicated that they would find it difficult or very difficult to find information on how to handle mental health problems. By contrast, only 8% indicated that they would find it difficult or very difficult to act on advice from their doctor or pharmacist.

Differences in health literacy across socio-economic characteristics such as gender, age and level of education are minor. By contrast, more socio-economically deprived individuals tend to report lower levels of health literacy than those not suffering from financial deprivation.

Promoting health literacy is key because individuals with higher levels of health literacy tend to engage in and adopt healthier lifestyles, such as consuming more fruits and vegetables and exercising more. They are also more likely to report being in good or very good health and less likely to report suffering from at least one long-term illness or health problem; to have used emergency healthcare services in the two years preceding the survey; and to have used medical or surgical specialists. For example, a difference of 10 percentage points in the number of health-related tasks individuals perceive as “very easy” or “easy” is associated with a difference of around 1.4 percentage points in the likelihood of consuming fruit and vegetables, a 1.9 percentage-point difference in the likelihood of engaging in physical exercise, 2.4 percentage points in the likelihood of reporting to be in good or very good health, and 1.3 percentage points in the likelihood of suffering from a long term illness or condition.

A 2020 survey of more than 2 500 companies based in Japan found that 75% of companies had in place specific programmes aiming to enhance health literacy related to healthy lifestyles

Many countries are increasingly implementing policies and initiatives to promote health literacy. Since 2016, France has been carrying out an annual campaign to inform the population about the risks associated with tobacco smoking and to support people to stop smoking for at least one month: mois sans tabac. OECD analyses found that the campaign increased the probability that individuals quit smoking by more than 20%, compared to the months in which the campaign was not broadcast. In the longer term, this campaign is expected to produce savings in healthcare expenditure in the order of magnitude of 94 € million per year, which corresponds to about 0.7% of the budget spent yearly by France on prevention.

In some cases, these initiatives are also undertaken by private employers recognising that employees with a higher level of health literacy are likely to become healthier and more productive employers. For example, a 2020 survey of more than 2 500 companies based in Japan found that 75% of companies had in place specific programmes aiming to enhance health literacy related to healthy lifestyles. OECD analyses showed that combining education interventions with modifications of the working environment to make healthier choices the easy choice further promote the positive impact on employees’ health.

Raising people's health literacy requires a multifaceted approach, ranging from policies addressing specific population groups to general population interventions. Strengthening the health literacy of individuals with low levels is paramount, as is enhancing healthcare providers' ability to communicate effectively. By aligning relevant information with the knowledge and skills of the population, we can bridge the gap between the expectations placed on individuals to manage their health and the support they need to do so effectively.



Further reading

OECD (2023), OECD Skills Outlook 2023: Skills for a Resilient Green and Digital Transition, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/27452f29-en.

OECD (2023), OECD Health at a Glance 2023: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/7a7afb35-en.

OECD (2022), Promoting Health and Well-being at Work: Policy and Practices, OECD Health Policy Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/e179b2a5-en.

Devaux, M., et al. (2023), "Évaluation du programme national de lutte contre le tabagisme en France", OECD Health Working Papers, No. 155, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/b656e9ac-fr.

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