Are we really looking at the dawn of a ‘new health consumer’ in Europe?

Sally Greengross / Jun 2015

The European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis. Photo: European Union 2015

Just as our health systems are witnessing profound changes and challenges, the preferences and proclivities of the health consumer are also evolving.  We have heard much debate in Europe about a ‘new health consumer’. This mythical beast is presented as being informed yet demanding, capable of nimbly navigating the traditional and emergent sources of health advice and provision and yet also equally responsive to the growing emphasis on personal autonomy and responsibility. 

However, we know such reductive classifications do not ring true and a recent report by the International Longevity Centre –UK, which looks at the behaviour of health consumers across four European countries (UK, Germany, France and Portugal), highlights just how different European health consumers are. We surveyed 4,182 European citizens and discovered how people seek information - i.e. where they go, who they trust and how health literate they are - has profound repercussions on access, equality and quality of health care provision.

Of course, most European countries have made efforts to improve access to healthcare information and provision in recent years and this is borne out to a large extent in our survey findings. However it is evident that levels of health literacy and confidence in the range of health services are by no means uniform, with pronounced differences between countries and across the generations.

Our research shows that in general European citizens are feeling ‘optimistic’ about their health status. In the UK, Germany and France most people rate their current health status as ‘very good’ or ‘good’, however this is not the case for all European citizens with discernible differences across age groups and countries. In Portugal, for example, 76.8% of the over 65’s surveyed are most likely to report their health as ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ compared to just 38.7% of the over 65’s in the UK.

European citizens are also in the main feeling relatively confident in their ability to find health information. The most common response given by our survey members when asked how easy it is to find information about health concerns is that of ‘fairly easy’. The mythical beast of the ‘savvy’ health consumer was also evident with percentages of survey respondents finding it ‘very easy’ to find health information as high as almost 50% across some specific age groups in the UK and Germany. 

However this is clearly not the case for all citizens and it is evident that there remain significant challenges for certain sections of society to find health information, which will invariably influence health access and outcomes. On average, almost a quarter (24.5%) of survey members based in France do not find it particularly easy to search for information on health concerns, while a mean of 18.6% of those surveyed in Portugal choose this option. A generational divide was also discernible in most countries; in the UK for example those aged 65 years or over and those aged between 25-34 were most likely to report that it is ‘very difficult’ to find health information compared to other age groups.

In terms of the most trusted sources of health information, unsurprisingly, healthcare professionals such as doctors and nurses are the most frequently used and trusted sources of health information across all countries and age groups. While alternative sources of information such as pharmacists, medical helplines or the internet are currently less frequent and less trusted sources of information than health care professionals, they may be becoming more important. Young people in all countries are generally more receptive to receiving health information from these sources, and there is support from these age groups for more information from alternative sources. Around a quarter of younger respondents in the UK would like to receive more information from pharmacists, and around half would like to get more health information over the internet.

You may ask why does this matter? Well in every aspect of our lives, we are faced with questions about health, whether we are old, young, sick or fit. The sphere of health has expanded far beyond the confines of the health care system itself. We need to consider how European and national policy-makers can foster better health literacy amongst their populations, with a particular view to enable individuals to take ownership of their health and make the most appropriate decisions about risk behaviours and health in general. There is a pressing need for politicians and policy-makers to not only improve the productivity of health care delivery, but also engender a paradigm shift towards prevention-based approaches rather than an overarching focus on treatment.

Sally Greengross

Sally Greengross

June 2015

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