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On 22 and 23 November, Health First Europe attended the European Health Literacy Conference organised by Maastricht University at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Under the European Health Literacy Project 2009-2012, this event presented the first European Health Literacy Survey describing the state of play of health literacy across Europe. The survey highlights the problems and vulnerable groups in health literacy, gaps between Member States and finally the potential solutions and policy recommendations to improve health literacy. Co-hosted by MEPs Antonyia Parvanova (ALDE, Bulgaria), Christofer Fjellner (EPP, Sweden) and Karin Kadenbach (S&D, Austria), the conference brought together a panel of high-level speakers including representatives from the European Commission, the European Parliament, academia, private sector, health professional and patient organisations.

MEP Fejllner opened the event by addressing health literacy to citizens and patients, emphasising the need to put patient empowerment at the centre of the welfare system, in particular health education and access to health data.

Following Mr. Fejllner, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli welcomed the results of the survey which revealed that health literacy is a key condition for making informed decisions by patients in the healthcare system. As 50% of Europeans have used the Internet to find health information, Mr. Dalli suggested the changing landscape of healthcare enables an increasing lack of relevance and quality of online health data. As regards this alarming situation, the European Commission proposed to launch an Internet Wikipedia tool called ‘Health in Europe’ to ensure easy access of relevant health information for anyone. He declared that such a system represents the potential innovation has to offer for health literacy. However, Mr. Dalli remarked that empowering citizens through technology must be built upon the transparency and liability of the healthcare system. In addition, the democratisation of knowledge is a political challenge and commitments have to find agreement at the European Commission.

According to Zoran Stancic, Deputy Director-General of DG Information and Society, the Digital Agenda is one part of the answer. One of the seven pillars, ‘e-skills’ would work on assisting patients to better handle health data from Internet. The possibility of using social media is also a part of the answer because new technologies empower citizens in e-Health and telemedicine related issues.

MEP Antonyia Parvanova declared that utilising a different approach is a key point to overcoming the challenge of health literacy.  She expressed that patients should be considered more like partners and co-producers and not only as consumers in society. From this perspective, the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing brings more education and new technology, particularly for the elderly, to prepare the patient to make a knowledgeable decision for successful treatment.

According to the health literacy survey, most patients have a low or insufficient level of health literacy and this phenomenon represents a problem for European Member States (on different national levels) and a cost for the healthcare system. Therefore, conference participants agreed that Europe now needs a common consciousness among citizens and political involvement at the EU level to put patient’s knowledge of health at the center of the health sector. With efforts from all parties (e.g. patients and health providers), health literacy could play a fundamental role within European health policy.