Health literacy: n. The knowledge and skills required to understand and use information relating to health issues such as drugs and alcohol, disease prevention and treatment, safety and accident prevention, first aid, emergencies and staying healthy.” (Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS), 2006)

Health literacy encompasses the theoretical knowledge of maintaining one’s overall wellbeing (physical, mental, emotional), pathophysiology of illness and environmental influences on health, but goes beyond that. Being health literate also means knowing how to navigate the services and healthcare system, and to proactively seek and critically evaluate sources of information.

59% of Australians have a health literacy level below level 3, on a scale from 1 to 5 1—a sobering statistic, and a topic well worthy of a Torque module.

We kick started the conversation with some pertinent pre-reading material (sample) prior to the event, with a Kindle and Myer gift card as prizes for survey and quiz participation. 

The event day was divided into two halves: the morning for lecture-style presentations by keynote speakers, the afternoon for tutorial-style workshops.

Our module convenors (Faye Liu and Elizabeth Low) opened the event with a video featuring students on campus giving their take on health literacy, and tried their hand at questions such as “is gluten bad for you?”. This set the scene for discussion—health knowledge (and the lack therefore, or misconceptions entrenched) is a real-world issue.

Dr Alison Beauchamp gave us a succinct overview of health literacy, reminding us that it is very much about the patient experience. The onus is on healthcare professionals to give the patient information they understand, and can then apply in their unique situation. This is easier said than done. For example, instead of intuitively asking “do you understand?”, a more effective way would be to ask patients to teach back, to explain what they understood. The latter is more likely to elicit their true extent of comprehension, while the former is a binary question—patients can just say “yes” even if they are still confused, out of embarrassment of ignorance.

Mr Thomas Shafee shed insight on Wikipedia and its role in the medical literature. While often looked down upon as a non-academic, unreliable source by professionals, it forms an undeniable part of the patients’ health knowledge database— being the fifth-most visited website worldwide. He explained the intricacies of how Wikipedia operates—anyone can anonymously edit almost all articles (either to correct existing information, or add on and update new knowledge), there is a dedicated team of editors policing the pages, and articles are rated on a scale: stub < start < C < B < A < Good < Featured, from lowest and highest quality. You can even see this approval process for yourself by clicking on the “Talk” tab, on the top left corner of each Wikipedia page! Even as medical students, we are reservoirs of valuable, accurate health information. Taking the time to edit and correct fallacies on Wikipedia is one way to contribute back to the wider community, which has placed its faith is us and invested resources in our medical education.

Dr Sally Cockburn (aka Dr Feelgood) ended the morning’s session with a bang, wowing everyone with her infectious energy and enthusiasm. It is no wonder that she is both a GP and a strong media presence—she runs Talking Health on radio station 3AW, writes in the Q&A section of Girlfriend magazine. This is out of her passion to share the truth on health issues, and life in general. Truth is relative, changing over time and across cultures, and is only as good as the tools you use to test it, and as the people who record it.

Following a hearty morning tea and Banh Mi for lunch, the event took a more interactive turn with small-group workshops in the afternoon. Each had an experienced guest facilitator leading the discussion. The workshops covered a range of topics: how to conduct difficult patient conversations, how to approach asylum seeker and refugee health, understanding the situation of health supplements and sex education. As participants, we were encouraged to share our opinions and work on group tasks, such as planning an interactive public education session with a refugee group.

Following an exciting closing ceremony, thanking the team and awarding prizes, we left more informed than when we came - definitely not your usual style of teaching! This Torque module has taught me a lot about the importance of public health education that I wouldn't have otherwise seen. Thanks Torque!

By Dolly Png