Policy on healthy ageing integrating health literacy

Policy brief, October, 2015.

Why is health literacy important for EU member states?

Health literacy is the degree to which people are able to access, understand, appraise and communicate information in relation to health and diseases. Health literate people are able to understand messages for healthy living, can discuss their needs and demands with healthcare professionals, and can take the right decisions for staying healthy or managing their health conditions. Health literacy enables people to maintain their quality of life.

Health literacy is especially important for older persons, who have to cope with more chronic health problems than younger people and are facing more physical, mental and social challenges due to ageing. The capacities of older people to manage their health may fall short compared to the required needs. In general, when older persons are better able to manage their own health, they can use health services more effectively and they are able to continue participating in society. Health literacy is an instrument for active and healthy ageing.

What can governments do?

National and regional governments have the responsibility to improve the sustainability of health services, while increasing accessibility to health promotion, prevention, cure and care. Health literacy has proven to be one of the keys to achieve these goals.

Governments should incorporate health literacy in all policies that involve healthcare or healthy ageing, for example public health programmes, patient safety and healthcare quality programmes. These policies should enhance support to decision-making by older people. Health information for the population should be easily understandable. New e-health and m-health applications should be accessible and acceptable for older people. Policies should also support families and communities that assist older people in healthy living. Caregivers should be able to increase their level of health knowledge and improve their abilities for networking.

Policies should enhance person-centred care: healthcare workers must have the time and the ability to communicate effectively with older people, especially when patients face difficulties in understanding medical treatments. Hospitals and health facilities have to become more accessible, so that older people easier can find their way, make appointments, or understand written or oral information.

Ministries of health can produce a national health literacy policy or strategy, like several countries in the EU have already done, guiding the health and welfare sector. It is important to establish a comprehensive health literacy approach, where activities reinforce each other and where focus on individuals in communities and for professionals is accompanied by improving performance of health organisations in person-centred care.

What is the expected impact?

Improving health literacy of older people will improve their capacities to stay healthy or manage chronic conditions. It will give them access to innovative communication technologies and new networking possibilities. It will enhance adherence to medical treatments. It will result in more effective and sustainable health services, due to more efficient utilisation. Most of all, it will contribute to active and healthy ageing and increasing healthy life expectancy, one of the EU targets for 2020.

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