By Mayra Sofia Crespo Bellido

“I drink tea of guanábana leaves when I can’t make it to my chemotherapy sessions. Did you know Miss, that eating guanábana is just as good as 10 chemotherapy sessions?” I was shocked when a patient shared this piece of information with me during a nutritional assessment interview. Luckily, my preceptor stepped in and educated the patient and his spouse on the risks of completely substituting traditional medicine with alternative treatments that are not evidence-based. He argued with my professor. In that moment it sunk in how dangerous health illiteracy can be.

Health literacy has been defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” It involves different factors such as: health knowledge, listening, speaking, arithmetical, writing, and reading skills, and cultural competencies of health professionals as well as other systemic factors.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 9 out of 10 adults may lack the skills needed to manage their health and prevent disease. Nearly 14% of adults (30 million people) have ‘below basic’ health literacy. These adults were more likely to report their health as poor (42%) and are more likely to lack health insurance (28%) than adults with Proficient health literacy. These patients are more likely not to vocalize their concerns and questions as well as being less active participants in their care because of the stigma associated with being health illiterate. Being health illiterate is a stronger predictor of health than socioeconomic status, education, ethnicity, or race.

Nutrition professionals in all areas face health illiteracy on a day-to-day basis. During my dietetic internship training, I have a difficult time gathering accurate information from patients during the nutritional assessment in the clinical setting, particularly when assigned a high patient load. That initial interaction may be somewhat compromised by the fact that most patients do not know how to express nutritional concerns and time is too constricted to dig deep into the answers provided. Same goes to other areas of practice: nutrition researchers dealing with tailoring informed consent forms to the level of health literacy of their population of interest or foodservice managers explaining to their employees the reasons to follow HACCP procedures to ensure food safety. Even public health nutrition professionals may face it while trying to advocate in favor of measures such as the taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Healthy People 2020 includes the specific objective to increase health literacy under the topic of Health Communication and Health Information Technology. In this era health and nutrition information is produced and distributed by individuals and organizations with various agendas. It is critical that people have the skills to navigate this sea of information without feeling overwhelmed by nutrition confusion. Guiding people through this process and giving them strategies to find and understand accurate food and nutrition information could allow for a new sense of empowerment that could position dietitians, nutritionists and other nutrition professionals as the go-to source in these matters for people who have put their trust elsewhere to get the information.

The World Health Organization has determined improving health literacy has implications in a greater scope than individual decision-making processes with the following quote:
“[…] Health Literacy goes beyond a narrow concept of health education and individual behavior-oriented communication, and addresses the environmental, political and social factors that determine health. Health education, in this more comprehensive understanding, aims to influence not only individual lifestyle decisions, but also raises awareness of the determinants of health, and encourages individual and collective actions which may lead to a modification of these determinants. Health education is achieved therefore, through methods that go beyond information diffusion and entail interaction, participation and critical analysis. Such health education leads to health literacy, leading to personal and social benefit, such as by enabling effective community action, and by contributing to the development of social capital.”
Such an impact could guide the food and nutrition policy measures that are needed to ensure the population’s health by activism that intends to change social determinants of health. Wow!

There is a vast amount of literature in health literacy, yet there is still some room for improvement in the scope of practice. Public health and community nutrition professionals could make use of the health care system’s shift from acute care towards preventive care and health promotion to justify projects that improve basic health literacy skills. Helping people understand the purpose of health and nutrition behavior change, increasing self-efficacy and helping individuals make decisions accordingly is vital.

References
Department of Health and Human Services (US), Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Health literacy online: A guide to writing and designing easy-to-use health web sites.

Health Communication and Health Information Technology- https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/health-communication-and-health-information-technology

Health literacy and health behaviour- http://www.who.int/healthpromotion/about/en/

Carbone E., Zoellener, J. (2012) Nutrition and Health Literacy: A Systematic Review to Inform Nutrition Research and Practice. J Acad Nutr Diet. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2011.08.042

By Marion Roche, PhD

At the 2014 Clinton Global Initiative in late September, former President Bill Clinton remarked that a Masaai Warrior has better access to mobile communications today using a small cell phone than he had during his presidency 25 years ago. This access to technology is providing a wealth of opportunities, including in nutrition research and programming. Cell phones are ubiquitous across the African continent and are being used increasingly as an essential part of health community plans: in the area of emergency maternal health, such as when labour stops progressing; for improving supply demands, such as when rural clinics run low on zinc and oral rehydration salts (ORS). The use of cell phones has been at the forefront of the emergence of an entire field of mobile health, known as m-health. One of the most popular uses is probably communications messaging, such as sending regular SMS reminders to parents for growth monitoring visits.

Mobile technologies also offer innovations in global nutrition research. As cell phone use across Africa increases, it becomes easier and easier to train field workers in the use of personal data assistants (PDAs), as people are more familiar with the technology from having their own cell phones. One such example from the Micronutrient Initiative (MI) is the use of PDAs for data collection in our field surveys evaluating a mass media intervention to improve zinc and ORS for the treatment of diarrhea in Senegal. Interviewers carried a PDA with questionnaires loaded onto their device. Text-prompts guided them through the questionnaire, eliminating the need for paper surveys and the logistical complications of storage and transportation that paper surveys add. In the case of our Senegal survey, the PDAs connected to the mobile network daily and sent the interviews to a central server, eliminating the step of manual data entry, as PDAs are configured to send the data directly into the digital database. Anyone who has done data entry can appreciate the extreme benefit of being able to skip this time-consuming and high-risk-for-errors step. Further, the study supervisor can check for concerns in data quality from multiple study sites on a daily basis and follow up with interviewers the next day, potentially increasing overall data quality. And just as important, the issue of lost or damaged paper questionnaires is greatly reduced.

Using PDAs for field surveys opens up other new opportunities, such as incorporating visual media into questionnaires. We were able to provide caregivers in our Senegal zinc and ORS study with pictures of the different brands of products available, giving programmers important insights. The use of images can also be helpful in surveys with dietary recalls, although this option would require preparation of uploading photos and knowing the foods and supplements available to the targeted audience in advance. After a media campaign, we could include images from television spots or radio segments to see if parents recall the ads.

Global Positioning System (GPS) is now offered with some PDAs, which can help in monitoring data quality, survey implementation, and new ways for interpreting data. For example, with the Senegal project, we have the GPS coordinates for households and a visual map of clusters, or hot spots, for diarrhea infections, enabling us to prioritize these areas for intervention. We were also able to ask families about radio stations they listened to and create a map of radio stations reaching the communities in order to develop a national mass media campaign using local radio stations. With traditional surveys it could be months before this type of information would be available.

Despite the advances in using PDAs for data gathering, there are downsides, the biggest being initial purchase costs, related software, as well as having the training and expertise to support surveys in-country. Other challenges are short battery life, theft, connectivity issues, and, in some cases, the need for accompanying paper consent forms. At MI we are fortunate to work with Canadian partner Health Bridge whose expertise and equipment support our local partners and the MI office in Senegal. Innovations in enabling access to these new technologies may be the next challenge in m-health for nutrition surveys, as we work towards systems that provide greater access to larger segments of populations in low to middle income countries.