Improving health literacy in Tasmania

As many as two in three Tasmanians have difficulty finding their way through the health system as a result of low levels of health literacy, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.

It is an issue that can lead to mismanagement of health conditions, hospitalisation and increased health costs.

And it is an issue a new pilot project launched by the University of Tasmania's Faculty of Health will try to address.

Senior lecturer in the School of Health Sciences, Dr Shandell Elmer, said the project would test a new approach to improving health literacy, known as OPHELIA.

OPHELIA stands for OPtimising HEalth Literacy and Access to health information and services and tackles health literacy at the local level by applying a three-step approach:

·       Assess the health literacy needs of the community/patients

·       Develop and plan interventions to address gaps in health literacy

·       Implement, evaluate and continue to improve interventions 

"We're working with the health practitioners at the Northern Integrated Care Service to look specifically at health literacy in the Cardio Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program in Launceston," Dr Elmer said.

"It offers an outstanding opportunity to test OPHELIA while also focusing our efforts on a program working with patients with cardiovascular disease – a major killer in Tasmania."

Dr Elmer said OPHELIA provided a framework and resources such as questionnaires and surveys and the hope was it would be rolled out more widely in Tasmania in the future.

"Health literacy is a key issue in tackling poor health. No other social determinant is a more accurate predictor of health status than a person's health literacy levels," she said.

"For individuals, it can lead to missed appointments or not correctly following instructions – all of which can have very real health and financial implications. One study found that people with low health literacy have healthcare-related costs between $143 and $7798 higher per year than people with adequate health literacy."

Improving health literacy was about more than simply providing clearer information by way of fact sheets or pamphlets, Dr Elmer said.

"It's also about educating professional healthcare workers who may have had no formal training in health literacy.

"We could be talking to a patient about their treatment and they are nodding and saying they understand when in fact they aren't. We need to be able to recognise that and learn how to adjust the way we deliver information."

The project, funded by the University with in-kind support from the Department of Health and Human Services, will be run for the remainder of this year and will involve 60 patients.

Dr Simone Lee, Dr Jessica Woodroofe and Dr Winifred van der Ploeg, all lecturers with the University's Centre for Rural Health, will work with Dr Elmer.

OPHELIA has been developed and supported by a range of research and government bodies including Deakin University, the Australian Research Council, the Victorian Department of Health and Monash University. Eight sites in Victoria are currently applying the OPHELIA process and it is being used in countries including Thailand, South Africa, England and Denmark.

From left to right: Dr Jessica Woodroffe, Dr Winifred van der Ploeg, Mr John Aitken, Dr Shandell Elmer, Ms Di Webb and Dr Simone Lee.

Published on: 14 Apr 2015 5:12pm