Improving health literacy through film

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, I had no problems understanding the information about the disease on television, in the news, and on the internet. I took this for granted – everything was produced in English, my native language. I could easily understand the instructions of washing my hands for 20 seconds, wearing a face mask, maintaining a two-metre distance – all those instructions that felt unfamiliar at first and are now commonplace in our lives.

What if it’s not just the concept of wearing a face mask that is unfamiliar, but you don’t understand the instructions at all? What if when you receive health information it’s all in English, not your everyday language?

I hadn’t thought about this until I joined Medical Aid Films in September. I’m an able-bodied English speaker – the health content I need is broadly accessible to me. This is one aspect of health literacy, and the fact that I took this for granted is precisely why a whole month of the year is dedicated to improving health literacy around the world.

Seeing is believing

Being health literate is the “ability to find, understand, and use information and services for health-related decisions for themselves and others”. Improving health literacy is also recognised as a key supporting factor for all the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. There is clear evidence for links between health literacy and health outcomes. For example, a recent study showed that women with lower levels of health literacy had an increased chance of going to c-section during labour, and of giving birth to lower weight babies. This points to the need to improve health literacy to benefit the lives of mother and baby.

Using film and multimedia can help overcome literacy and language barriers. Studies have shown that using visual content can increase learning between 23% and 89%. Diagrams, graphics, animations, films – to help improve the health literacy of people around the world, these visual aspects of information must be easily understood too.

This can mean the people seen on screen portray the ethnicity and cultural distinctions in communities accurately. This can also mean animations that are clear and simple and perhaps repeated to reinforce the message. Understanding the information in front of you can impact your immediate and long-term health, so it’s vital that people are able to access health information in ways suitable for them.

For us at Medical Aid Films, our media and communications put our audiences first and reflect the communities we’re trying to reach. We want to do more of this – make new content in more languages for multiple devices and platforms.

The language of learning

One obvious way that increased health literacy can be achieved is to provide health information in multiple languages and not rely solely on subtitles. Being able to read a medical pamphlet or the subtitles on a film will help a person access health information. But literacy, like health literacy, isn’t the same for everyone. Audio-visual content in local languages can make information accessible to more people in areas where literacy rates are low.

Creating multi-lingual content can help communities increase their health literacy, so it’s important that organisations take the time to create accurate subtitles and translations. Medical Aid Films now have over 400 films in more than 30 different languages, and we work with translators to provide voice overs for our films, as well as accurate subtitles, so that our films are more widely accessible.

Changing the level of health literacy

A simple vision drives the creation of our content: a world in which everybody can have healthy lives. If people cannot access content in their own language, or in a way that caters to their abilities, then they are at a disadvantage in their right to a healthy life. If the people they see on screen are not relatable, then they cannot see themselves making changes for their health.

I underestimated the importance of health literacy until I started my new role. Medical Aid Films doesn’t underestimate it, and we’re working hard to improve it across the globe.