Addressing digital health literacy is essential to avoid widening health inequalities

Digital Health Literacy workshop PT 2019

In a step towards ensuring that the development of digital health leaves no one behind and benefits the most vulnerable, EuroHealthNet and the Portuguese Directorate-General of Health have drawn conclusions on how national public health bodies can strengthen digital health literacy following an expert meeting. The growth of digital health is rapid and unstoppable. It brings many advantages, but threatens to exacerbate existing health inequalities experienced by people who have lower levels of digital health literacy.  

Digital health literacy is the ability to seek, find, understand, and appraise health information from electronic sources and apply the knowledge gained to addressing or solving a health problem[1]. People who are digitally health literate are able to have a more active role in achieving their health potential. Inclusive digital health services can lead to improved prevention, awareness of healthier lifestyle behaviours, and overall improvement in health outcomes throughout the life-course.

However, people with lower socio-economic backgrounds, people experiencing vulnerabilities, or people in old age may struggle to keep up with technological advancements.

“The growth of digital health risks widening health inequalities. Specific strategies are needed to address digital health literacy and Portugal is keen to help design and implement evidence based practice” says Graça Freitas, Directorate-General of Health in Portugal.

“Improving digital health literacy must be central to all European efforts on enabling the digital transformation of health care, as well as to health promotion efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” says Caroline Costongs, EuroHealthNet Director.

Last week EuroHealthNet and the Portuguese Directorate-General of Health held an expert workshop on digital health litteracy. National and international specialists discussed intersectoral approaches and identified a range of strategies and good practices for national public health bodies to take up. Examples that were highlighted are the Portuguese SNS24 health platform using various channels for engagement, DIGI-UNG a Norwegian online platform that offers integrated services including health for young people age 13-20, and a Dutch ‘4 steps to eHealth4All’ model from Pharos which not only helps to develop comprehensible and easy to use digital tools but also enables local partners in prevention and care to implement them within local infrastructures.

Recognising the sense of urgency to advance digital health literacy as a means to improve health for all, the participating experts encourage leadership to implement the following recommendations:

  1. The future is happening now! Increase awareness about digital health literacy; advance capacity building and training of health professionals in this area;
  2. Include co-creation with citizens from different backgrounds as part of guidelines for the design, implementation and evaluation of digital health solutions;
  3. Provide an approach to enable inclusive digital health solutions to be taken up widely across Europe, develop an EU Joint Action on Digital Health Literacy, a knowledge hub to share results and facilitate networking and learning;
  4. Create a framework and guidelines for health equity impact assessment and cost effectiveness of digital health services. Design a repository for easy to use, effective and reliable eHealth tools;
  5. Develop EU regulation on search engines; monitor the commercial determinants of health on the internet and select the appropriate type of regulations;
  6. Promote technological citizenship and advance critical digital health literacy during the life course (on eHealth, resilience towards digital marketing, understanding pros and cons of big data in schools and wider education);
  7. Always ensure interdisciplinary cooperation, action on digital health literacy at all levels (national, regional, local, community levels) and tailored to the needs of divers groups to avoid widening health inequalities.

[1] https://www.who.int/global-coordination-mechanism/working-groups/digital_hl.pdf

Notes

EuroHealthNet is the leading Partnership for Health, Equity and Wellbeing in Europe, with key activities in policy, practice as well as research. Its unique focus is on reducing health inequalities through action on the social determinants of health, integrating sustainable development goals, and contributing to the transformation of health systems. Its main members are authorities and statutory bodies responsible for public health, health promotion and disease prevention at national, regional and local level.

Background notes and report of the Expert Workshop will become available soon.

A policy Precis about health equity and mHealth is available here.

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The Directorate-General of Health regulate, guide and coordinate activities to promote health and disease prevention, defining the technical conditions for providing adequate health care, plan and program the national policy for quality in the health system and ensure the development and implementation the National Health Plan and also the coordination of international relations of the Ministry of Health.
www.dgs.pt