Lacking in health literacy


THE Covid-19 pandemic has shown that health literacy is low in the country – and this is a concern.

For instance, many are still in denial about the usefulness of vaccines in managing the infections. This is despite all the evidence available. And in spite of the fact that those vaccinated are showing to be less prone to serious infections, there are many who still refuse to take the booster dose.

It all boils down to a low appreciation for evidence-based health management. Many still listen to hearsay on social media rather than take the advice of doctors. Though this issue of low health literacy is not limited to any group, it seems particularly rampant among the B40 (low income) sector of the population.

A recent three-country study looked at the incidence of hypertension among the B40 group. The study, named Respond, was a joint effort between the United Kingdom, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In Malaysia, the B40 participants of the study included those in urban and rural areas in Johor, Kelantan, Penang and Selangor. Questions posed covered access to information, diagnosis and treatment. The findings have been written as policy briefs for submission to healthcare professionals and the government.

As part of efforts to share the findings from the study with the public, especially the B40 group, a webinar was held. An overwhelming number of about 800 participants joined online. Three key members of the study presented the findings and answered questions from the audience.

Judging from the questions that came up, there are many who still have a poor understanding of how to best manage hypertension.

In terms of access to information, diagnosis and treatment, the study confirmed that we in Malaysia do enjoy good health support infrastructure. Government health clinics are easily accessible in many parts of the country, especially in Peninsular Malaysia; the situation in Sabah and Sarawak is still dire, though.

The clinics provide good support in terms of information and consultation for those who require advice on hypertension. There is therefore no reason for members of the B40 group not to know what to do when dealing with hypertension.

Regular screening of hypertension is part of the prescribed management regime. The government has introduced a scheme called Peka B40 which provides various types of support such as paying for transport to health clinics for free health screenings.

But according to the Health Ministry, the campaign has received lukewarm response – so much so that the government is now thinking of using mobile clinics.

From the Respond study, the major challenge has to do with the need to change lifestyles. Despite being diagnosed with hypertension, there are many who still skip taking the prescribed free medicine. Many still treat the disease as something not serious. Many were surprised when told that there is no cure for hypertension. The fact that hypertension can be effectively managed through sticking diligently to taking medication and making suitable lifestyle changes is also not well understood.

Few would dispute that hypertension costs the economy significantly. It is a silent killer which has no cure. But over the years, scientists have found ways to manage the disease through medication and lifestyle changes. It is unfortunate that the message has not reached all.

A major suggestion of the Respond study is that health authorities rethink their communication strategy on hypertension to reach a wider percentage of the population.

Unfortunately, the part that is most challenging concerns the attitudes of people in the B40 group. This is where even the best infrastructure cannot help as it has to do with the behaviour of those affected by the disease. As revealed during question time at the webinar, many still believe that hypertension is curable.

PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM

Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI (Science, Technology and Innovation) Policy Studies

UCSI University

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