Gesundheitskompetenz ist die Fähigkeit, Gesundheitsinformationen zu finden, zu verstehen, zu bewerten und umzusetzen. Warum ist eine hohe Gesundheitskompetenz so wichtig? Wie kann sie erlangt werden? Und welche Rolle spielen dabei die Gesundheitsprofessionen? Kristine Sørensen, Präsidentin der International Health Literacy Association, gibt Antworten.
Health literacy leadership – a new professional qualification?
A health literacy champion is a person or an organization who enthusiastically and relentlessly defends and fights for the cause of health literacy to the benefit of people and societies at large – Sørensen, 2021
The growing awareness of the importance of health literacy has increased the interest in mobilizing changemakers who can help facilitate health literacy development of people and communities as well as organizations, strategies, and policies. However, little is still known about the role of the modern day’s health literacy champions, their practice, and virtues.
During history, the term champion has had different meanings. In modern times, a champion is usually envisaged as someone who has won the first prize and raise the trophy above his head. However, centuries ago a champion meant a knight who was fighting on behalf of others, someone who undertakes to defend a cause. The knights swore to defend the weak and to uphold virtues like compassion, loyalty, generosity, and truthfulness. These virtues also matter today, especially when the aim is to leave no one behind with regards to health literacy.
The importance of health literacy for people-centered services
Health literacy concerns the ability to access, understand, appraise, and apply information to manage health when being ill, at risk and wanting to stay healthy. Acknowledging that the response to health literacy issues is crucial to provide people-centered care, a growing number of organizations have begun to address system-level factors to support patients, clients, and consumers in making informed health decisions concerning treatment, prevention and promotion. It has also been recognized that addressing health literacy is an integral feature of delivering culturally and linguistically appropriate services to diverse populations. Essentially, addressing health literacy saves time, costs, and lives.
However, research made it evident that population health literacy limitations are a public health challenge. In response, professionals around the world have got engaged to bridge the gap. Health literacy is measurable and modifiable and taking action can help improve the health and well-being of people and societies. The catalyst of change is not always with the people. Most often, it is the professionals that are acting as change agents and advocate for its dissemination. In this regard, the question becomes apparent whether health literacy leadership is a new professional qualification in the making.
Health literacy leadership as a professional qualification in public health
A professional qualification refers to an advanced vocational credential based on specialized training in a specific profession or area of work. Pursuing a professional qualification can expand the opportunity for achieving a higher salary, qualify for a new position or earn specific recognition. For instance, across the world, several health literacy awards have been gifted to health literacy champions who have provided outstanding results and societal impact. The awards include, for example, the Well-Done Health Literacy Award launched by MSD in Belgium which aims to stimulate best practice-sharing to empower patients, optimize the communication between healthcare professionals and patients and ultimately to safeguard the sustainability of the healthcare system.
Due to the complexity of systems, new health challenges and advancement of technology – the need to be highly skilled and more adaptable is higher than ever before. As an inter-disciplinary skill health literacy is applied in a wide range of sectors. It is becoming a sought-after competence among academics, health professionals of all sorts, and in areas beyond health such as community work, journalism, publishing, IT technology, etc. Moreover, the call for healthcare organizations to meet the needs of the people they serve is spreading and the demand for employees trained in health literacy is therefore growing.
Bringing health literacy qualifications to life
Integrating health literacy as a strategic priority in all organizations requires health literacy training and leadership. Yet, it is not a given that professionals are skilled in conducting health literacy friendly communication and interventions. Health literacy is a professional qualification that needs to be nurtured and developed in professional educational programms and as part of post-graduate training in the workplace. Despite the call to action, only a few educational institutions and universities teaching health programms have so far included health literacy as an integral part of their curriculum. And there are even less opportunities for post-graduate training or workforce development in the field of health literacy. Other barriers include lack of commitment from the management, lack of resources and procedures and policies.
„Health literacy champions are in demand!“ – Kristine Sørensen
The health literacy qualification will only be brought to life when it is integrated into daily practice of the organizations involved in promoting health and well-being. To make a profound change, health literacy needs to be apparent in the boardroom as well as on the work floor. Organizational health literacy can help build a person-centered, evidence-based, and quality-driven organization, however, it requires a substantial change and reform of the organizational thinking.
Recognizing the need for health literacy leadership in organizations
To stimulate the process organizations are encouraged to identify change agents, health literacy champions, who can induce the process and develop it according to the organizations´ focus and context. The health literacy champions can move the agenda forward and explain the necessity to perform a change of practice. It may meet resistance, but mostly, the immediate impact of more content clients and patients also creates more content employees. Staff that helps to make it easier for clients and patients to access, understand, appraise and apply information to manage their health may also find it rewarding to see how an empowered patient will become more active and engaged and take control regarding self-care and needed actions for better outcomes. When patients and providers work in partnerships, it can undoubtedly enhance the success of the patient journey. The health literacy commitment needs to come from champions positioned in the highest levels of the organization to ensure a substantial impact.
Moving health literacy from the margin to the mainstream rarely happens without the engagement of health literacy champions. The challenge in the future is to keep recognizing people who can undertake the role of pushing health literacy to the next frontier through health literacy leadership. Acknowledging the need for the development of health literacy leadership as professional qualification and emphasizing the role of higher education institutions in this process can accelerate the process.
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Kristine Sørensen | Executive advisor on health literacy. She helps leaders improve health literacy by design. She has a background in public health and global health diplomacy and works with the public and private sector as well as civic society to develop health literacy for all. Kristine Sørensen is the president of International Health Literacy Association and chair of Health Literacy Europe.
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Sørensen, K. (2021). Health literacy champions in New Approaches to Health Literacy. Linking Different Perspectives. Springer.