COVID-19: Spreading the importance of Health Literacy (E1)

Despite afterwork hours, discussion connecting ‘Cancer care, health literacy & COVID-19’ at the European Health Forum Gastein 2020 brought together a diverse panel and audience highlighting the need to solve one of the main public health challenges.

During the past months, the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly influenced everyone, particularly chronic patients such as the ones suffering from cancer. Urška Kosir, Researcher from University of Oxford, confirmed this with their recent research where 60% of young cancer patients felt mentally affected by the crisis. Having a compromised immune system, commuting to receive adequate therapies, and being subjected to negative messages on the evolving pandemic, caused big uncertainties over the outcome of the patient’s cancer care.

This young patient group are especially hungry for adequate health information, considering there might still be many years ahead of them. This makes them understand more and helps them adjust to the uncertainty, even during the crisis. But how difficult is it to obtain adequate information during such an unprecedented time?

Considering the huge amount of information that is at patient´s disposal, across different platforms, from scientific articles to statuses on social media, one key question is how to select and translate this information for specific patient groups? Bettina Ryll, a founder of the  Melanoma Patient Network Europe raised the importance of investment in educating people/patients on how to understand science. Nowadays, for example, patient’s recognition of fake news helps in securing health care outcomes.

According to Kaisa Immonen, Director of Policy at European Patients’ Forum, public authorities are still a well trusted source in the eyes of patients and the general public. However, they are massively failing in communication, and major improvement is needed. Especially when the public health impact is so large.

Everyone agrees that health literacy is vital to cancer care with one main beneficiary – the patient. There is extensive evidence of earlier diagnosis, better adherence to treatments and traceability of side effects from increasing patient literacy. From the perspective of Cathryn Gunther, Vice president of MSD, as the complexity of the treatments are increasing, it has highlighted the fact that health outcomes are a cocreation between patients and healthcare.

With or without the pandemic, health literacy remains a neglected public health challenge in Europe. Will the new Cancer plan bring some light to such a complex issue for cancer patients? 

Cancer survivor and leader of the health portfolio of the European Commission, Stella Kyriakides is presenting a holistic approach to the cancer plan from the very beginning of her mandate. In this context, health literacy remains a cross cutting issue starting from prevention, vaccination, screenings through to treatments. Nevertheless, this plan faces a large variation between the member states on patient information and literacy, even more on capacity of health care workers to interact with patients.

In conclusion, we can see two positive elements from this latest policy momentum. Compared to last decade, patients and experts agree that health literacy is a crucial element in today’s health care and that there is still a huge potential in improving prevention and health outcomes, which current crisis only highlighted. Secondly, compared to previous years we see an interest coming from various stakeholders to transmit this public health need to relevant policymakers. We can only hope that the upcoming ‘Europe Beating Cancer Plan’ would be a start to ensuring equal health literacy of European citizens.

Author: Young Gasteiner, Katarína Gatialová.

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