Despite the growing interest in health literacy, little research has been done around health professionals’ knowledge of health literacy or understandings of the barriers to health literacy that patients face when navigating the health care system. Indigenous peoples in New Zealand (NZ), Canada and Australia experience numerous inequalities in health status and outcomes and international evidence reveals that Indigenous, minority, and socio-economically disadvantaged populations have greater literacy needs. To address concerns in Indigenous health literacy, a two-pronged approach inclusive of both education of health professionals, and structural reform reducing demands the system places on Indigenous patients, are important steps towards reducing these inequalities.
Four Indigenous health care services were involved in the study. Interviews and one focus group were employed to explore the experiences of health professionals working with patients who had experienced cardiovascular disease (CVD) and were taking medications to prevent future events. A thematic analysis was completed and these insights were used in the development of an intervention that was tested as phase two of the study.
Analysis of the data identified ten common themes. This paper concentrates on health professionals’ understanding of health literacy and perceptions of barriers that their patients face when accessing healthcare. Health professionals’ concepts of health literacy varied and were associated with their perceptions of the barriers that their patients face when attempting to build health literacy skills. These concepts ranged from definitions of health literacy that were focussed on patient deficit to broader definitions that focussed on both patients and the health system. All participants identified a combination of cultural, social and systemic barriers as impediments to their Indigenous patients improving their health literacy knowledge and practices.
This study suggests that health professionals have a limited understanding of health literacy and of the consequences of low health literacy for their Indigenous patients. This lack of understanding combined with the perceived barriers to improving health literacy limit health professionals’ ability to improve their Indigenous patients’ health literacy skills and may limit patients’ capacity to improve understanding of their illness and instructions on how to manage their health condition/s.