I’ve got a job for you. I’ll be honest, it’s a big job. Not big in time, big in impact. I’ll outline the job description in a moment but first I want to tell you a few stories.

A man and a bed pan.

A local man, who we’ll call Ian, walked into his local neighbourhood house and asked if there was a bed pan he could borrow. One of the workers had been trained by a local initiative called The Right Place and respectfully ‘checked-in’ with Ian to find out why he wanted one. Ian said it was for his wife as she’d just become incontinent. Ian had been her carer for four years. The worker asked Ian if he’d had the community care team come to his house for an assessment. Ian said he didn’t even realise the service existed. They soon arranged an assessment and it wasn’t long before a nurse was visiting Ian and his wife regularly and they were set up with practical help including waterproof sheets and a bed pan.

Metho, coke and lice.

In a small rural community, a group of frustrated parents attended an information session about head lice. Earlier community discussions had revealed lice was a significant ongoing problem causing social, health and economic issues. It was so significant a problem, that parents were trying anything they could to help their kids but hadn’t known where to get the right information. Some tried pouring coca cola on their children’s heads, some had used methylated spirits, while others had put flea collars on their kids as they couldn’t afford the expensive lice products. The stories that came out at this session led to further education sessions and the donation of a big box of lice shampoo for the community.

Are you cereal?

Sarah knew she needed some help to start living a healthier life, so she’d begun attending a free community program. She really enjoyed a particular session about healthy eating and proudly turned up to the next session with a cut up cereal box to show the coordinator she was no longer eating pies and pastries for breakfast. This was a big step for Sarah.  However, the cereal she’d chosen contained about eight teaspoons of sugar per 100g of cereal.  Sarah’s got a few more steps ahead of her, but she’s still a step up from where she started.

These are real Tasmanian stories. They are all examples of poor ‘health’ literacy and how profoundly and how often it effects people’s lives. The hard work being done in the community made a difference in all these cases, which is a great start.

Low literacy levels in Tasmania means 48% of us can’t read and write well enough to manage daily life. When it comes to ‘health literacy’ that figure jumps significantly. The 2006 Australian Health Survey tell us 63% of adults in Tasmania do not have adequate health literacy skills to manage their health and wellbeing. This is higher than all other states and territories. It means people struggle to fill out forms, find help when they need it, remember or understand health information and they are less able to detect or prevent a health problem. 100% of us are affected when our health budget continues to be burdened by preventable illness.

Part of our job is to continue to advocate for more funding for preventable health so the sorts of programs that have helped Ian, Sarah and the willing group of parents, can continue to help more people better manage their own health.

Your job? 

Start telling people your ‘good’ health stories. If you’ve found a service in Tasmania’s health system that’s helped you, tell someone who may benefit from it too. If you’ve learnt how to properly read the back of a cereal box, run a friend through it. If you’ve been walking on a great local trail, take someone with you. If you’ve been for a check-up at the GP that possibly saved your life, encourage someone to do the same. It might just give that someone the confidence they need to know “It’s ok to Ask”.  Let’s use real stories to help share good, reliable and practical information that will make Tasmanians better equipped to look after themselves. I told you the job was big, but it’s also easy. Share your story and improve health literacy.

Tasmanian sisters Lucy Byrne and Penny Terry founded Healthy Tasmania Pty Ltd to help people live the best life they can. They are ‘community organisers’ who prioritise collaboration, innovation and storytelling while managing projects that improve the health, social and economic outcomes of our communities. Here they write for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative. Find more at chattermatters.com.au.

First published in The Mercury on 29th June 2018.