Issued by Mandi O’Garretty, Government and Media Relations, Deakin University

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9 August 2013

As many as one in four Victorians struggle to navigate the maze of health information and health care services, putting them at increased risk of hospitalisation and their medical conditions being inadequately managed.

Deakin University public health researchers are leading Ophelia Victoria (OPtimising HEalth LIterAcy), a new project with the Victorian Department of Health and Monash University, to improve health literacy in the state. The project has a particular focus on people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and mental health problems. It was launched today (Friday 9 August 2013) by the Minister for Health David Davis.

According to Deakin’s professor of public health, Richard Osborne, health literacy is crucial to a person’s ability to best manage their health.

“Health literacy is far more than just being able to read the label on a medicine bottle. It is about knowing where to go for health information and then understanding and making use of that information,” Professor Osborne explained.

“Improving health literacy will lead to fairer and more efficient health services where people are better supported in managing their health.

“We know for example that there are over one million Australians diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. Many of these people will struggle to find the relevant health information they need. Our health care services can be highly complex to navigate and diabetes patients may have multiple points of contact with different services.

“Paying more attention to the health literacy issues of people living with conditions such as diabetes could reduce the poor and potentially preventable outcomes, such as amputations and blindness, which do occur even in modern healthcare systems like Victoria’s.”

This is where Ophelia Victoria steps in.

Ophelia Victoria is a three year initiative, funded by the Australian Research Council and the Victorian government, to identify and test new health literacy interventions in eight health services. The interventions, which are being developed and trialled in real-world settings, seek to improve the health service’s responsiveness to people with low health literacy. 

Whilst previous surveys have suggested that low health literacy is an issue for as many as one in four Victorians, Ophelia Victoria introduces a new benchmark health literacy survey tool which the researchers say is a major improvement over past efforts and that the results have real clinical value. 

“Not only are we capturing a meaningful picture of where Victorian’s health literacy challenges are highest but, importantly, the team is partnering with Victorian health professionals to develop, test and implement solutions,” Professor Osborne said.

“We expect Ophelia Victoria to improve the health literacy of patients and also to provide our health organisations with a structured way to efficiently recognise, understand and respond to the health literacy needs of the people they serve.”

The new survey tool being used by the Ophelia Victoria team is already gaining international recognition and has been published in the international journal BMC Public Health.

“The system-wide approach being adopted in Ophelia Victoria is also being watched by international groups, including the World Health Organization, and is likely to be of value in both developed and developing countries,” Professor Osborne said.

Deakin’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander said Deakin was delighted to be partnering with the Department of Health and Monash University in this initiative to improve the health of Victorians.

“This is a sector leading initiative that brings with it the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of Victorians living with chronic conditions,” Professor den Hollander said.

“This project is particularly important to Deakin as we work hard to forge a strong reputation in our communities for lasting and mutually beneficial relationships.

“Not only will Ophelia give people in Victoria access to the tools needed to increase their control over and improve their health, but it is also being closely watched by health organisations around the world. I was recently contacted by the Director of the South East Asia office of the World Health Organisation asking for Ophelia Victoria to be used to support their efforts to improve health and equity in Asia and beyond.”

The eight Ophelia Victoria sites are based at Barwon Health, Bass Coast Community Health, Bayside City Council, Central Bayside Community Health, City of Greater Dandenong, Eastern Health, Ovens and King Community Health and the Royal District Nursing Service.