Debate stresses importance of health literacy

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Ljubljana – Mitja Vrdelja from the National Institute of Public Health (NIJZ) stressed the importance of health literacy at an online debate on the pandemic-era infodemic hosted by the STA on Monday. Access to information is not a problem nowadays, the problem is assessing the data and checking their credibility, he warned.

A survey among over 3,300 adults was carried out in Slovenia last year, checking how much know-how, ability and motivation people have in accessing health-related information, understanding it and checking its credibility.

A key founding was that as many as 48% of adults have limited health literacy. About a third of them are sufficiently literate in this field and only 14% master health matters excellently, Vrdelja said.

The worst results were recorded among those over 65, people with low education and people with low income.

When it comes to information about health they need to be checked in different sources, and the author also needs to be checked, Vrdelja said, adding that it took a lot of motivation to do all that. But these are the elements needed to assess information, he said.

The latest survey on the effects of the pandemic on people’s lives conducted by the NIJZ on the monthly basis, shows that people trust their doctor the most when it comes to health-related information, and also hospitals and scientists.

Trust in official institutions is lower and in politicians lower still.

People most frequently use TV to be informed, turn to their doctor or talk to their acquaintances. The least popular source of information among the respondents is social networks, especially among the older respondents, the NIJZ official said.

However, people still often resort to social networks, including when looking for information about vaccination. After noticing that such people are often attacked by anti-vaxxers and fail to get relevant information, a group of young scientists and mums set up a Facebook group Science Mamas’ Vaccine Forum.

A moderator of the group, Lucija Ana Vrščaj, a young researcher at the Ljubljana Faculty of Pharmacy, said their goal was to provide relevant information backed by studies and maintain a high level of communication.

She is convinced the moderators were the right persons to answer the questions of young parents being mums themselves. “They trust us because we’ve been though the same things. We too wonder whether vaccination is okay for our child, whether it is safe or not.

“We are concerned about our children, but we do not let emotions win over common sense,” she said.

Young parents most often ask questions about the effects of vaccines on pregnancy and breastfeeding. Many do not trust their doctor.

“This is worrying but we understand as doctors are not united. A gynaecologist will still not recommend vaccination during pregnancy although the Association of Perinatal Medicine recommends vaccination.

“People are simply desperate and they don’t know who to turn to. Some only trust their intuition and it is very difficult to conduct dialogue with such people,” she said.

Science communicator Zarja Muršič agreed that vaccination and Covid measures need to be presented to people through personal stories. She said that in order for trust in institutions to be restored proper communication was needed along with patience and tolerance. People must foremost not be underestimated, she stressed.

“Only when you listen to people can you find out where the misunderstandings are, where they come from and why they are concerned,” she said.

According to Muršič, the problem in Slovenia is not so much the lack of trust in science but rather in institutions. She pointed to two European surveys about trust in the vaccination that were carried out before the pandemic.

Back then it seemed that the trust in vaccines in Slovenia was on the rise. “Something was obviously going on in the field. In the pandemic the situation was completely different but it’s not like nothing was done before the epidemic. I only hope we’ve learnt our lesson.”

She noted though that the situation was not as catastrophic as it may seem. “Half of the people did get vaccinated. One in two people are still vaccinated,” she noted.