Health literacy key to prevention

Improving Health and Wellbeing

A Deakin PhD student is demonstrating how health literacy research can improve healthcare delivery.

Health literacy, or the ability of individuals to find, understand and use information about health and healthcare, is a growing area of research.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), poor health literacy is associated with poorer overall health outcomes.

It can also lead to increased risk of adverse health events and higher healthcare costs.

Sarah Hosking, a PhD student with Deakin University’s Centre for Innovation in Mental, Physical and Clinical Treatment (IMPACT), is demonstrating how the results of health literacy research can be translated into improved healthcare.

“Health literacy is more than general literacy and the ability to read and understand labels on a medicine bottle,” Ms Hosking said.

“It’s also being able to manage and navigate complex health issues and an increasingly complex healthcare system.”

Ms Hosking’s PhD research looks specifically at the role of health literacy in the prevention of osteoporosis, using data from Geelong’s longest running and largest population-based study, the Geelong Osteoporosis Study (GOS).

The study began in the mid-1990s, with 1500 women selected randomly from local electoral rolls to investigate the pattern of osteoporosis in the general population and to identify risk factors for fracture.

“We found the number of women in the cohort who self-reported having osteoporosis was lower than the number who actually had the condition.

“This means many of them were unaware they suffered from it, and women who were unaware of their osteoporosis status were more likely to struggle with certain health literacy abilities,” Ms Hosking said.

Using the Health Literacy Questionnaire developed by Deakin’s Centre for Population Health Research (CPHR), Ms Hosking was able to assess the cohort’s health literacy across nine domains, measuring how confident the women in the study felt engaging with health professionals, whether they had sufficient information to manage their health, their access to social support and how easily they found and used health information.

Ms Hosking explained that the research provided evidence-based information to develop positive public health interventions targeting specific domains where health literacy was low.

“It’s about understanding what the barriers to health literacy are – are they in finding and understanding information, for example, or in actively managing health using that information?

“If we can determine how people find and use health information, we have a chance to communicate that information in ways that are relevant to them and hopefully change their health outcomes”
Sarah Hosking
Sarah Hosking PhD student

“For example, we’re finding the women in GOS who aren’t meeting calcium intake recommendations have lower health literacy in the domains related to finding, having and appraising health information.”

“We need to find ways that are more effective in helping them to understand and act on the information.”

Ms Hosking is using her expertise in health literacy to educate local health organisations about the importance of health literacy and how research in this field can be translated into improved healthcare.

In November, she facilitated her first workshop with local health insurance provider GMHBA, helping staff to understand key health literacy concepts, recognise the importance of health literacy in health outcomes and consider how they might address health literacy as an organisation.

She is also a member of the Barwon Health Health Literacy Strategic Reference Group, providing a research perspective on the group’s efforts to raise awareness of health literacy at an organisational level.

Ms Hosking originally pursued a career in biomedicine, but found her passion for public health and health promotion.

“I could choose the laboratory route and work on cures, or the public health route and work on prevention,” she said.

“I became passionate about the idea of prevention rather than cure.”

Her excitement about health literacy and its role in prevention led to winning the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) Young Investigator Award 2016, which she sees as a measure of how health literacy awareness has grown in the past few years.

“This award usually goes to much more basic or clinical research than mine, but I think it shows the growing awareness of the importance of health literacy,” Ms Hosking said.

The Award and her work with the Barwon Health Reference group has only fuelled her enthusiasm for health literacy research.

“It shows me that what I’m doing can positively affect the Geelong community,” she said.

“It’s not just presenting at conferences and shouting into the abyss, but knowing my research can actually have an impact.”

Centre for Innovation in Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Treatment (IMPACT)

IMPACT aims to improve health and wellbeing by contributing to the understanding of the causes and impact of psychiatric, musculoskeletal, metabolic and other disorders.