By Dr Naresh Purohit

New Delhi: India has an unusually high rate of general illiteracy and stark poverty, both of which contribute to low rates of health literacy.

High rates of health literacy is critical to the empowerment of communities against emerging threats of viral diseases, vector borne diseases , climate change and non- communicable diseases.

In India, at least 9 out of 10 adults suffer from low health literacy. It is reported that even in the US and the UK, more than 50 per cent of the people have low health literacy; the ‘cost of ignorance’ is about $200 billion in the US alone. Such people harbour myths about food and exercise, lack knowledge about symptoms of diseases, or have misinformation about the body functions or the use of medicines. 

Health literacy is the capacity to obtain, process and understand healthcare  information and services needed to make appropriate decisions in the areas of wellness and patient care. It is one of the factors that lead to the acquisition of knowledge, positive attitude, self-efficacy, positive health behaviour, and better survival. It gives a sense of control and confidence to individuals to gain access to and understand aspects of health promotion for themselves, their families and communities. It further helps in mobilising communities to address the social, economic and environmental determinants of health. 

As per the World Health Organisation, high rates of health literacy in population groups benefit societies. Health literate individuals participate more actively in economic prosperity, have higher earnings and rates of employment, are more educated and informed, contribute more to community activities, and enjoy better health and well-being.

Low health literacy, on the other hand, has been found to be associated with lesser use of preventive services, and excessive use of emergency services, with high costs and dismal outcomes. Besides increased hospitalisation, patients with poor health literacy have high incidence of adverse drug reactions and nearly two-fold higher risk of death. 

Low health literacy is associated with failure to seek timely medical help, lower rate of vaccination in children, increased burden of sexually transmitted diseases in the youth, the inability to interpret and follow up with prescribed medication for the elderly, and consequently higher morbidity.

Research studies have revealed that patients suffering from conditions like acute coronary syndrome or severe infections, those with lower health literacy are more likely to die than those empowered with it. Lack of health literacy, coupled with the ever-growing population, also poses a threat to our nation’s economic stability as patient-care expenditures are on the rise. 

There is a need for health policies and strategies that address the issue of health literacy. It can be used as a tool for the empowerment of people by their own participation.  Better government policies can, thus, be drafted for further improvement in health services. 

The school and college curriculum must include ‘body literacy’ from the primary classes onwards to sow the seeds of health literacy in the young minds, so that they grow into healthy adults. Reducing the availability of junk food, banning the promotion of unhealthy food, highlighting the perils of obesity and excessive use of mobile phones, and sensitising the media to promote health literacy are essential.