Pharmacists’ role is changing… but the pharmacy assistant needs to evolve too, writes Angel Gonzalez

Consumers with low health literacy skills are often embarrassed and go to great lengths to hide their inability to read or understand medical information. They may not want to disclose their limited literacy skills.

According to the 2006 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, nearly six out of 10 Australians have difficulty using everyday health information that is routinely available, to make decisions around their health. In other words, most people do not have the ability to interpret information from texts and graphs and understand the safety of a product, much less decipher from a label on the pack or medical prescription other information such as duration of treatment, or correct dose for a child.

Health literacy is defined as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health and wellbeing decisions.

Limited health literacy affects people of all ages, races, incomes, and education levels, but the impact is significantly higher to those that may need it most, like lower socioeconomic and minority groups. Unfortunately, this can often result in poor health outcomes and higher costs.

A research study published in ‘Health Expectations’ by  Kairusz and collaborators from the University of Queensland, explored the factors impacting on consumer health literacy from the perspective of pharmacy staff. It highlights the potential for pharmacy assistants to play a positive role in improving or developing health literacy within communities.

The researchers call for more engagement between pharmacy staff and consumers to focus on areas of potential confusion, such as understanding labels on medicines and navigating the health system, with the goal of optimising health outcomes and minimising the negative consequences of limited health literacy.

Pharmacies currently employ over 43,000 pharmacy assistants. The youthful profile of the pharmacy assistant workforce—50.9% of the workforce is aged 15–24years, compared to 16.7% across all occupations—represents a challenge for the sector but at the same time, provides an opportunity to develop tailored technology driven training aids for a generation that are technologically astute, agile and who would benefit from having access to state of the art tools that would assist them in their advising duties.

Providing training and support with technology-based health decision making tools will not only increase pharmacy assistants’ autonomy and confidence but will also help empower customers to improve their health literacy through exposure to more accessible information, leading to better understanding and more compliance.

Empowering people to improve their health literacy is a critical enabler to improving community health outcomes and reducing healthcare costs for consumers and government alike.

The future is bright for the future of pharmacy staff as wellness promoters in our communities.

Dr. Angel Gonzalez is a Senior Associate with XPotential™ and Director of SymptoMapp. A qualified medical practitioner and anaesthetist in his home country, he is the owner of his own medical consulting business in Latin America. Angel’s deep medical knowledge, commitment to improving consumer health literacy and creativity provides unique insight into opportunities to improve healthcare in Australia.