Greater health literacy skills result in greater self-reliance

People with more limited health literacy skills feel less healthy, find self-management more challenging, exert less control over their own care, and visit their general practitioner (GP) more often than those who find it easier to understand and use information about their health. Health care professionals and policymakers should be sensitive to this, according to Iris van der Heide. Her observations are based on research conducted at the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research (NIVEL) and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) for her doctoral thesis. She received her PhD from VU University Amsterdam on May 28.

Iris van der Heide conducted research on health literacy skills. She studied the extent to which an individual’s understanding of health information is associated with health and personal characteristics such as age and socioeconomic status. Especially older people and those with relatively low socioeconomic status were found to have trouble understanding and using health information. And it was particularly these people who felt they were less healthy than those for whom this was less challenging. Research has shown that 30% to 50% of the population have inadequate health literacy skills.
Exerting control
People with fewer health literacy skills are thus less able to carry out self-management tasks, such as keeping track of glucose levels for those with diabetes. They exert less control over their own care and also visit their GP more often. Iris van der Heide: “Health care institutions, screening organisations, and health care professionals have to become aware of this so they can provide these people with the proper care. For instance, it’s important that they adapt the way they communicate information to people with more limited health literacy skills, and determine whether what they're trying to convey has been understood.”
These research findings are important in light of changes to the health care system in the Netherlands. Older people now have to be increasingly self-reliant and are expected to live at home longer. People also have to make informed choices when it comes to health care. “More limited health literacy skills might form a barrier to making an informed choice about whether to take part in a screening programme or get a vaccination. For colorectal cancer screening, people with fewer health literacy skills seem to be less positive about the screening programme, and are less knowledgeable about it,” according to Van der Heide. “By providing health information in a way that’s accessible and understandable, health care professionals and policymakers help people stay healthy. This kind of support is especially important for vulnerable groups like the elderly and those with chronic conditions.”
Van der Heide based her premises on literature reviews and research using questionnaires administered among the general population in the Netherlands and among those with chronic diseases. 

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