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Why PR must help the nation become more health literate

Let's face it; the last few years have been tough. We've all lived through the worst public health crisis in a generation and lived to tell the tale. While the virus hasn't gone away, the Government's official restrictions now have. Now we are in the "living with the virus phase" of the pandemic, we need to become more health literate as a nation.

Getting this right even during the end stages of a pandemic can quite literally be a matter of life and death. As communicators, we need to do our bit by making sure people have the tools to make informed health decisions. However, achieving this involves overcoming the communications barriers to health literacy, which is no mean feat.

Barriers to health literacy

The health literacy in UK adults varies drastically. A recent observational study suggested that 61% of adults struggled to understand health information that includes both text and numbers. This deficit in understanding is estimated to cost between 3-5% of the annual UK health budget.

The barriers to engagement are complex, encompassing a variety of linguistic, cultural, socio-economic, age and disability-related factors. There is clear evidence to suggest that those with lower health literacy are statistically more likely to experience social deprivation and have little to no educational qualifications.

Public understanding of health information and the ability to make informed, rational decisions about one's health is a vital component of the effective public debate in a democracy, but even more so when recovering from a global pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis has shone a spotlight on the real-world consequences of poor health literacy.

Fake news and the Covid-19 crisis

When the Covid-19 crisis first struck, social media was awash with conspiracy theories, from 5G to Bill Gates and Chinese lab leaks in Wuhan, misinformation toxified public debate. This created a powerful sense that the virus was a myth and that the public were being manipulated by sinister forces beyond their control.

A study by Cardiff University showed that 51% of those surveyed saw disinformation about coronavirus between March and April 2020 and 12% of those surveyed said they had shared inaccurate coronavirus news. People in this category tended to be younger and have fewer years of formal education.

Fake news about the crisis had clearly penetrated the consciousness of the general public, a significant minority of whom were contributing to its spread and proliferation. The toxic nature of the public debate about Covid-19 created by conspiracy theories contributed to the expansion of the anti-vax movement.

The rise of the anti-vax movement

As the pandemic progressed into the vaccine rollout, the anti-vax movement became a key public health challenge. It is estimated that the biggest English-language anti-vaxxer social media accounts have a global following of 59.2 million people. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate research suggests that annual revenues from the 'anti-vax industry' are an estimated £750m.

Not long ago there was an international media storm surrounding Novak Djokovic's controversial deportation from Australia for failing to meet its vaccine requirements. Media events like this mean that anti-vaxxer messages reach a mass public audience as never before, with potentially dangerous consequences.

The statistics starkly illustrate the real-world health consequences of not having a vaccine. It is estimated that 61% of patients admitted to critical care in the UK were unvaccinated. 74% of people admitted to hospital in the week of 29th December 2021, had not had three doses of vaccine. The public health consequences of not being fully vaccinated couldn't be clearer.

At this crucial stage of recovery from the pandemic, we need a new public health communications drive to improve the quality of public discourse, detoxify the debate and debunk those dangerous myths. Viral misinformation and fake news about Covid-19 have serious public health risks; as an industry, we must act together to tackle this. It's time we all got more health literate as a nation; the future of our public health depends on it.

Written by Louise Flintoft, director, scientific strategy at agency Onyx Health

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