Nitin Das VP, vHealth, Aetna explains that there are several underlying reasons for lack of health literacy in the country. Over-reliance on traditional therapies, illiteracy, low healthcare access or just plain ignorance are some that top the list
With one of the largest and most diverse populations in the world, healthcare access has been a big challenge for India. The situation is slightly improving in the past few years since the government shifted focus to improving healthcare infra and encourage innovative technology to improve access.
Besides low penetration of medical services, low health literacy is another serious challenge for the country’s healthcare sector. A major repercussion is that people are unable to comprehend the symptoms of a disease occurring in their bodies, and even if they do become aware of the symptoms they have little idea about what to do or who to approach for professional help.
Major Reasons for low health literacy
There are several underlying reasons for lack of health literacy in the country. Over-reliance on traditional therapies, illiteracy, low healthcare access or just plain ignorance are some that top the list.
The Government of India has previously attempted health-literacy programs on different platforms, however, its viewership has been limited. Programs like “Jaan hai to Jahan hai” were telecasted on Doordarshan for a very long time but lacked the mass viewers to make an impact.
In rural areas, several State Governments run health awareness campaigns through government schools or PHCs or Anganwadi Kendras, where staff travels from village to village to spread health literacy & hygiene. Due to limited budgets, resources and scale, these programs are unable to deliver desired results.
Internet of Things as the game changer
Internet has been the most exciting man-made invention so far, bringing with it the information and communication revolution. India boasts one of the deepest penetrations of high-speed internet and the largest number of smartphone users in the world. Internet & IoT, I feel can therefore prove to be the ultimate game-changer in health literacy due to following reasons:
Staying updated on-the-move: Technology is helping people stay updated on health-related news & information, aggregated from across the world. Smartphone apps keep the user up-to-date on latest healthcare trends and new developments in disease management. During COVID, when the entire world was under lockdown, internet & broadcast content helped people stay updated on precautions & practices through news, blogs and videos floating across different platforms. In fact, the government effectively used apps like the Arogyasetu & CoWin to reach out to people and apprise them about infected persons nearby, vaccination availability, COVID precautions, etc.
Monitoring health: Many smartphone apps and wearable devices like smart watches are helping people monitor their health and send alerts if any unusual health readings occur. These devices are used by care givers and doctors to monitor patient’s health, especially the chronically ill or the aged population, thus helping them provide more accurate & effective treatment.
Understanding symptoms: A majority of internet users use the power of search engines to search for and read about symptoms emerging or prevailing in their bodies. Various smartphone apps have detailed descriptions of various symptoms and the underlying disease. Several AI and ML-powered applications can even analyse the pictures of affected body parts, provide a description and suggest simple course of remedial action or first aid.
IoT, undoubtedly can be a game changer for health literacy by opening up the information superhighway to all those having access to internet. Technology, however, can only provide the means to access information, and it is mission critical for the government as well as private healthcare providers to work in harmony and play their part in ensuring information is constantly verified & sanitized before it hits the public platforms. Proactive access to such channels should be encouraged or incentivised to ensure more and more people view the content. Open source mobile platforms like Arogya Setu, having verified preventive & primary care practices can help people easily access health information at their convenience.
Policies around communicating health related information & practices through both government and private channels can be drafted for improving access to information. Education Institutes can include compulsory modules around health and hygiene to train the next generation in healthy living, who in turn can teach the older folks in their household. Institutes along with corporate CSR financial power can also equip local PHCs & Anganwadi workers the necessary technology & digital modules on general hygiene awareness especially for women and children who don’t go to school. These modules can be delivered in person using smart graphics to maintain high levels of interest. This can drastically reduce effort of handling and maintaining books & other paper materal and reduce the hassel in content updation. Further, like there are restrictions around advertising alcohol or tobacco products, regulating promotion of junk food or unhealthy habits on public platforms can be a good way to promote health literacy. Needless to say, health literacy is an important step for India towards becoming a global leader in healthcare infrastructure.