Strengthening Health Through Education: how to achieve health literate societies?

Due to a combination of greater demand and rising costs, healthcare systems across Europe are facing serious financial challenges. Self-care helps reduce the pressure on the entire system and is an integral part of a comprehensive health promotion and disease prevention strategy in Europe. But for self-care to fully deliver on its promise, people must be supported with the right tools to build health literacy. This can be achieved with proper health education initiatives, professional guidance, and adequate digital literacy.

Health literacy plays a major role in supporting the practice of appropriate and responsible self-care. It enables us to make more informed choices, it helps us to monitor symptoms and it encourages us to seek treatments, with or without the supervision of a healthcare professional, depending on the situation.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we perceive and use health services[1]. It opened our eyes to how fragile our systems are and to our personal responsibility. More Europeans are now willing to take an active role in their health and engage in self-care.

Today in Europe, 1.2 billion minor health issues (insect bites, headaches, allergies, minor injuries…) are self-managed every year with self-care products[2]. This saves health systems and national economies 34 billion euros that would otherwise have been spent on unnecessary doctor appointments, medical expenses and missed work. Self-care saves healthcare professionals time to focus on patients requiring specialized medical care; if we were not able to treat ourselves with self-care products, we would need about 120,000 more doctors in Europe right now. Self-care brings real economic and social value and promises other benefits if it is more widely adopted.

Investing in health education to support self-care has never been more important. Health literacy can be increased with education, professional guidance, and the provision of reliable health information.

Distilling notions of health with awareness campaigns

Awareness campaigns from across the healthcare community help inform and educate the public on health-related questions, such as managing specific health situations[3], using certain categories of medicines appropriately[4] or dealing with expired medicines[5]. They can take the form of leaflets and posters, often found in pharmacies and doctor’s practices; and they can also integrate a virtual component that conveys the message to online audiences.

Often happening on global awareness days and repeated annually, awareness campaigns help to distil notions of health. They consolidate long-term health literacy for the benefit of public health.

Platforms and programs for public health education

Health literacy provides the foundations for people to play an active role in their health. Educational platforms and the incorporation of general health education in basic primary and secondary school curricula are approaches that can help the population develop the necessary competencies to practice self-care and become the health literate citizens of tomorrow.

Examples of programs promoting the training and education of the population on health topics include the Italian initiatives ‘La Salute vien Clicc@ndo?’ and ‘10@lode in Salute[6], targeting school students; or the Portuguese health literacy programme ‘Tratar de Mim[7] and, more particularly, the game “Jogo Tratar de Mim” that provides health education to children in the form of a game.

To increase the health literacy of their citizens and create awareness of the value of self-care, many AESGP members provide a virtual space containing information and materials on minor ailments, correct lifestyles, and prevention behaviours. Information can be sought by consulting the websites of the national associations. Alternatively, AESGP has listed and offers quick access to certain self-care platforms in Europe[8]. It is advisable to consult credible sources of information, provided by organizations capable of producing evidence-based and accurate health information.

There is much to be gained if similar initiatives are further developed in Europe. At AESGP, we are proud of the many activities our members carry out proactively. We remain committed to supporting them in their efforts and serving as a platform for them to share their knowledge and inspire each other.

Health professionals play a key role in supporting health literate citizens

Healthcare professionals – such as doctors, pharmacists, and nurses – are the most trusted by people when it comes to obtaining information to manage their health.[9] They have a privileged position to help the population become more health confident and knowledgeable. They play a key role in the further development of self-care and must be supported appropriately.

To achieve health literate societies, it is important to integrate self-care into the training and education programs of healthcare professionals. Doctors should recommend self-care options to patients with minor illnesses, whereas pharmacists should allocate the time to advise about symptoms and possible self-care treatment options.

Noting “a large gap in the area of self-care advice despite a large amount of available information and number of professional educational courses”, the Croatian Association of the Self-Care Industry (CASI) together with expert pharmacy educators and practitioners co-developed a manual to assist pharmacists in managing patients with minor ailments and providing them with the best self-care solutions. Originally developed as a printed book, the manual is now available in electronic form and has been integrated into pharmacy dispensing support software.

In a rapidly evolving sector where there is a constant need to keep abreast of the latest developments, healthcare professionals must receive the necessary support, both during their studies and career, to be able to provide the best advice, including on self-care options.

Health literacy in a digitalised world

The internet has become an important tool for people to search for health information. A pre-pandemic survey found that more than half of EU citizens (53%) aged 16-74 reported seeking online health information related to injury, disease, nutrition, improving health or similar[10].

Information and communication technologies facilitate access to many sources of health information. However, the quality and reliability of that information are variable. The dissemination of health information from trustworthy sources is key to avoiding inappropriate health decisions and minimizing the impact of misinformation in times of health crisis, as seen with COVID-19.

In Switzerland, for example, the health platform vitagate.ch[11] has been contributing for more than 10 years to the Swiss population’s knowledge in the field of self-medication and consumer healthcare. It provides users with information and services developed by specialised journalists and certified by the Health On the Net Foundation[12].

We are looking at a future where digitisation will continue to grow. Digital health literacy has the potential to empower people to better manage their health. It is important that, through adequate health education, they acquire the necessary skills to use digital tools correctly and to assess and recognize reliable sources of health information.

References

[1] AESGP Evidence Summary “Self-care in times of pandemic and beyond: looking back a year after”

[2] AESGP Summary Report “Self-Care in Europe: Economic and Social Impact on Individuals and Society”

[3] An example is the 2020-2021 ‘Belly Pain’ campaign in Belgium by Sanofi in collaboration with the Association of Belgian pharmacists (APB) and Scientific Association of GPs (SSMG) that raised awareness and understanding of belly pain specificities and the importance of getting a consultation to treat it appropriately.

[4] An example is the European Antibiotic Awareness Day campaign, an annual European public health initiative that raises awareness about the threat of antibiotic resistance and the importance of prudent antibiotic use.

[5] On the European level, the MedsDisposal campaign – which involves several European healthcare, industry and student organisations – aims to raise public awareness on the correct way to dispose of unused or expired medicinal products.

[6] These programs are led by the Italian Association of Self-Medication Drugs (Federchimica ASSOSALUTE) in collaboration with Cittadinanzattiva, a non-profit organisation that advocates the protection of citizens.

[7] The campaign is led by the Portuguese pharmaceutical industry association (APIFARMA) and runs in partnership with the National Pharmacy Association (ANF), the Directorate-General for Health, the National Authority for Medicines and Health Products (INFARMED) and further institutions including the Chamber of Medical Doctors.

[8] The map has been launched in December 2021 and will be updated as soon as new platforms are available. On this page, visitors can also participate in a self-care quiz to test their self-care knowledge. The quiz invites reflection on how they can improve their self-care behaviour and offers a couple of tips and tricks to practice self-care the right way.

[9] Global Self-Care Federation Study “Understanding Trust in Self-Care”

[10] Eurostat 2019 Survey on the use of ICT in households and by individuals

[11] The operating company is a subsidiary of the Swiss Druggists’ Association, which also works closely with the manufacturers of OTC medicines and the Swiss Pharmacists’ Association.

[12] Health On the Net is a non-profit organisation that promotes transparent and reliable health information online: https://www.hon.ch/en/

Share this article on :

Hi there!

Stay in the loop for AESGP news and events by signing up for our newsletter.