September 21, 2018

Health literacy in multicultural environments is a two-way street

Attaching health literacy to the National Health Survey makes Australia the first country in the world to fully and comprehensively get a baseline of our country’s health literacy, using a tool that was actually developed in Melbourne.

A keen supporter of Northern in our efforts to improve quality of care, Professor of Public Health, Richard Osborne from Deakin University, and the director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Health Literacy, held a research seminar on health literacy in multicultural environments at NCHER recently.

Richard describes health literacy as a person’s ability to understand access, use and retrieve information, and organise themselves and their family to be able to get healthcare. That is something very close to health equity and quality because it goes two ways – people can have trouble understanding what to do and health professionals can also have trouble understanding what the needs are of the people they serve.

“Some patients are unable to read English, and they are given English written information, so they get in a tricky situation unless they have someone to help them understand. Also, they might be given medicine and they need to understand instructions on when to take them,” he said.

Health literacy also means developing a relationship with the healthcare professional. For a patient, it means whether they can actually discuss things with doctors, if they can find information on the web which is reliable and safe and do they trust the healthcare professionals.

“As this is a two-way street, we have to look from the other side too. From a health service perspective, health literacy means asking questions like – how good are we as a service to understand people’s needs? Do we talk to them in a way which they can understand? Do we understand their cultural issues and backgrounds?”

Richard adds that when someone leaves a hospital and professionals give them instructions to look after their baby in a certain way, as an organisation you need to make sure you’ve communicated correctly.

“There’s a technique called ‘teach back’ and that is what professionals can use to check if they have been understood,” he said.

You can say something like, “now, I’ve given you some information about what you need to do. Can you please explain to me the steps you need to take when you get home. If the patient can’t explain, then it’s the professional’s job to explain again or try explaining in a different format,” he advised.

‘Teach back’ is incredibly important and it’s key to good mutual understanding, as it genuinely supports better understanding.

“At the Collaboration Centre for Health Literacy, we offer various research tools, and those tools have been used in many parts of the world. In multicultural communities, it’s crucial to co-design communication materials to get cultural, as well linguistic, things right, so that when people go home they know what to do,” Richard said.

According to Richard’s research experience, understanding your community means knowing what community needs are and what perceptions they have.

“Try to understand what it feels like to arrive to Australia, and all the things you would need to know quickly, to be able to navigate thought the system and access all the health services available,” he added.

Make sure to check out amazing speakers during the Research Week at Northern Health from 8-12 October.