October is Health Literacy Month, and if current events this year have proven anything, it is that health literacy is more important than ever. Before discussing the timely circumstances, let us first backtrack for a moment and understand this concept. Health literacy can be defined as an individual’s ability to comprehend and communicate basic health information. Recently however, the definition has been expanded to include both personal health literacy and organizational health literacy. Personal health literacy is the extent to which an individual understands health related information, which informs their actions. As for organizational health literacy, this is the extent an organization provides individuals with health-related information, so they can make educated decisions about their health. Therefore, these two pieces of health literacy are intrinsically tied to each other.
Now, let us discuss the novel circumstances surrounding this year. Health literacy needs to be at the forefront of the conversation right now, as COVID-19 continues to manifest around the world. This is because those who lack health literacy might make decisions that would lead them to be more susceptible to contracting and then spreading the virus to others. Even though we are now over half a year into the pandemic, there are still instances where individuals choose not to wear masks or make no attempt at social distancing. If these individuals had a more robust understanding of health literacy and how communicable diseases spread, perhaps they would reconsider how their actions affect their health and the wellbeing of others? That being said, the responsibility of stopping the further spread of COVID cannot be placed on individuals alone. For COVID or for future pandemics, government readiness and vigilance towards promoting health literacy is vital. When governments and public health experts are transparent in providing emerging information about COVID, this can lead to the public making more informed behavioral decisions based on their critical health literacy.
Inversely, the spread of false information through news or social media can negatively impact an individual’s health literacy. As a result, this can lead to unhealthy choices, exacerbating the spread of the virus. For example, widespread hoarding of hydroxychloroquine occurred after it was reported to have significant success treating COVID patients. However, this led to unnecessary side-effects for those treated with COVID, while the medicine was depleted for those who actually could have benefited from it. It is important to note however social media can be an extremely useful tool for promoting digital health literacy. Health agencies can launch live platforms on sites like Facebook or Instagram for awareness campaigns, where they engage the population with video conferences and webinars hosted by medical experts.
As we have seen over the past half year of this pandemic, health authorities have put in place legislative protocols, from instilling new policies like shelter-in-place and limited capacity at businesses. This has led to varying degrees of success. It is paramount for governments to prioritize the promotion of health literacy to maximize the effectiveness of stopping the spread of communicable diseases in addition to these protocols. As a result, in this struggle against the pandemic, it is important this month in particular to remember the impact health literacy can have for all of us.
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“It is ironic that while there is an overwhelming necessity worldwide for tackling the disease, the issue of health literacy is ignored or misjudged as a public health problem in the current health dilemma. “