For many years, reports showed that six out of 10 Filipinos die from sickness without even seeing a health professional. The probability was high that those who sought medical advice were already seriously ill when they did so—lessening the opportunity for any preventive care.
Recently, Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) President Dr. Anthony Leachon explained that this was an effect of poor health literacy among Filipinos. Many Filipinos are unable to make appropriate health decisions because they do not have working knowledge and understanding of basic health information and healthcare systems.
Patients manifest poor health literacy in different ways—from being unable to interpret and follow doctor’s prescriptions to not knowing how to properly manage their health insurance portfolios.
And it is a problem that bogs down even developed countries. The 2006 US Department of Education report revealed that only 12 percent of Americans had proficient health literacy skills, while the remaining 88 percent had difficulty understanding and acting upon health information.
A 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) report found that nearly half of adults surveyed in eight European Union member-countries had inadequate or problematic health literacy. Up to 62 percent of respondents from Bulgaria registered low health literacy levels.
Poor health literacy amongst individuals can cripple any universal healthcare policy or system. Last year, the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) affirmed that 81 percent of Filipinos were covered by the government’s universal healthcare program, though there isn’t any indication whether these individuals fully understand the benefits afforded to them.
Health Secretary Enrique Ona echoed this, saying that the biggest irony in achieving universal healthcare in the country was that “those who need it the most don’t know about Philhealth and their benefits.”
Low health literacy also increases public health costs, as studies have shown that people who skip necessary preventive medical tests tend to utilize more expensive curative facilities and treatments like emergency rooms.
Health literacy ought to be considered a top public health goal, for which the Department of Health (DOH), other allied government agencies and non-government sectors should team up—for instance, in public information campaigns.
However, such campaigns should not employ a one-size-fits-all concept. These should consider social, economic, and local cultural factors. What works in Metro Manila may not be effective from province to province. Evidence suggests that translating medical brochures and information sheets into the vernacular already goes a long way in improving health outcomes.
As government’s universal healthcare program is ramped up, more efforts should now be devoted to making sure citizens understand both the benefits they can receive and their corresponding responsibilities.
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VitalSigns Issue 66 Vol. 3, August 1-31, 2014