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The crucial role for medical communications professionals in promoting health literacy


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Improving health literacy is vital for enhancing health-related decision-making.
  • Medical writers can support efforts to improve health literacy by producing clear content, targeted to the intended audience.

Health literacy is a powerful instrument for improving the health status of both individuals and communities. A recent article in the European Medical Writers Association’s journal Medical Writing explored how health literacy influences healthcare decision-making processes, highlighting the important role medical communications professionals can play in advancing health literacy.

Health literacy can be defined as “the knowledge, motivation, and competence to access, understand, appraise, and apply information to make decisions in terms of healthcare, disease prevention, and health promotion”. Three dimensions of health literacy have been described:

  • functional: basic skills of reading and numeracy required to understand health information
  • interactive: ability to extract and derive meaning from health information, and the capacity to apply this to changing circumstances
  • critical: ability to critically assess health information and apply this knowledge to exert control over personal situation.

The 2011 European health literacy survey carried out in 8 countries found that health literacy was inadequate in 12% of the total surveyed population (1.8–26.9% of respondents by country), with financial deprivation, low social status, low education level, and old age identified as predictors of poor health literacy.

Two areas where poor health literacy may have a negative impact are the ability to distinguish between real and fake news (such as those related to COVID-19) and patient awareness when making health-related decisions. In a study of patients enrolling in an oncology clinical trial, higher literacy levels were associated with a greater understanding of informed consent and the risk of cancer recurrence.

Medical writers can play an important role in advancing health literacy by producing patient-targeted materials in an appropriate format, using clear, descriptive, and engaging language.

As a strategy to improve health literacy, the authors stress that interventions need to be targeted to the intended audience. By doing so, policies designed to address key public health challenges can also be strengthened. Medical writers can play an important role in this process by producing patient-targeted materials in an appropriate format, using clear, descriptive, and engaging language.

The authors therefore urge the medical writing community to consider the health literacy of intended audiences and to adapt the language used to produce accessible scientific content for the target reader.

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Do you consider health literacy when producing patient-orientated materials?

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