If, as a country, we are serious about improving the health of our population, there has to be a focus on technology-driven health literacy and access.
Technology can significantly enhance and promote health literacy, leading to improved behaviour necessary for better health outcomes.
With the growing use of the Internet by Jamaicans, wider cell phone usage and availability of affordable data plans, we have a real opportunity here.
By its simplest definition, health literacy is the extent to which individuals can understand and apply basic health information to their lives to improve outcomes. This depends on several factors, including the availability of information and the way the information is presented and received.
Health literacy should go hand in hand with the increased use of technology across the public and private sectors. I do not believe that we have been able to reach the population through the conventional methods of health education that have been employed over the years.
In any case, providing health information on its own cannot solve the problem of the largely unhealthy Jamaican population, evident in the preponderance of lifestyle diseases. The relevant services and support systems have to also be available to maximise outcomes.
We have to also find ways to engage hard-to-reach rural communities to provide the necessary services that fit the epidemiology of those populations. The focus has to be twofold and technology can take centre stage in the overall approach.
First, information can be provided to persons through digitised systems such as what now exists at the University Hospital of the West Indies.
We have to also consistently ensure that patients are kept up to date with their condition, medication, implications of lifestyle practices and simple and workable solutions to improve their health.
The technology allows doctors to easily provide this information through their digitally networked system which, through the availability of a comprehensive National Patient Record Database, can give correct and historical health information on each person.
This will not only help the practitioner care for patients but will also help the patient to partner effectively with their health care provider. This is essential, especially for persons with non-communicable diseases to be able to adequately manage their illness.
The second area of focus is providing the ability to take action. This means that health care has to be widely accessible.
How do we do that in a country with little resources and a topography that makes many areas difficult to access? At the end of the day, while health care access is important, the economics of providing it is also a factor.
So if it doesn't make economic sense to have a physical structure in a particular community, we can have mobile units stationed in particular communities on a preplanned schedule where a doctor or a group of doctors, who cannot be physically present, can be linked to patients through a telemedicine platform.
In this way, multiple doctors can give their services in a day without having to travel to the various locations. This clearly would increase the ability to provide coverage for a larger number of citizens in less time and at less expense.
Another strategy is for a remote care management kiosk to be set up at community health centres which do not have a doctor present, and telemedicine be used for consultations. This would allow residents and doctors to track and manage health and provide updates and alerts via cell phone or email, as well as meet virtually for consultation.
This approach not only provides information but also allows patients to act on this information. Health literacy can therefore allow persons to truly take their health into their own hands.