Young hit by poor health education
Low levels of national health literacy have landed New Zealand with one of the highest rates of childhood skin infections in the Western world.
More than half of New Zealand's adult population have low health literacy skills - meaning they struggle to understand health information and do not follow doctor's orders, leaving treatments such as antibiotics worthless, a new study has found.
"New Zealand has one of the highest hospitalisation rates for childhood skin infections in the Western world," the Government-led study, conducted by literacy development company Workbase, found.
Between 1990 and 2007, serious skin infection rates effectively doubled in New Zealand, with more than 100 children per week being admitted to hospitals for treatment, many needing intravenous antibiotics and one-third requiring surgery.
The study, which was published late last year, was targeting health literacy in an attempt to prevent skin infections within Maori populations and found health literacy was a key barrier preventing Kiwis from accessing health services.
Lifting literacy levels would lower the country's childhood skin infection rates, the study found.
It made a number of recommendations, including publishing a simple booklet advising parents how to treat their children's skin infections, with a number of photographs.
Poor health literacy often occurs among poverty-stricken or lower socio-economic areas.
Pacific Island Evaluation social worker Toalepai Louella Thomsen-Inder sees the direct effect of this issue on children in Christchurch.
"I see kids with eczema, asthma, scabies and rheumatic fever. I've seen their faces full of red, scabby skin and it gets to the point that the infections are so bad the kids are kept home from school because of the shame," she said.
Thomsen-Inder recently asked one family if any of the children had scratchy skin "and six of them were paraded in front of me with their shirts off and their bodies covered in eczema".
Language barriers and illiteracy were the biggest barriers for the healthcare of Pacific Island families, she said.
Canterbury District Health Board member Chris Mene said health literacy was a "really gnarly issue" that was difficult to tackle.
It was crucial for patients to understand the importance of taking a full course of antibiotics, "rather than leaving them in the pantry next to the Panadol for when they feel ill again" and language barriers could hinder the delivery of that message, he said.
The health board had focused on improving health literacy for more than a decade but "we can only control what the system does".
The health board "absolutely has to" maintain its focus on health literacy for 2014, especially as large migrant populations were moving into the region for the rebuild, Mene said.
The health board's child and youth work stream has been working with GPs and pharmacists to ensure they understand the importance of health literacy and how the community can address it.
Canterbury medical officer of health Dr Alistair Humphrey, who also works as a GP, said it was "very difficult" communicating with patients who spoke English as a second language.
From a broader health perspective, education was a "very, very" important factor for a healthy population, he said.