While pharmaceutical products and healthcare financing dominate the majority of discussions surrounding the improvement of health outcomes, health literacy still remains a core issue that, if left unaddressed, may vary well hinder Hungary’s ability to push its health agenda forward and create a more sustainable system moving forward.


According to the OECD, life expectancy at birth in Hungary was 75.6 years in 2014, which is well below the European average of 83.3 years. Hungary also ranked quite low on this indicator when compared to other countries in the region, with only Romania lagging behind in terms of life expectancy at birth. While the majority of knee-jerk conclusions may link this disparity to the chronic underfinancing of Hungary’s healthcare system, the root of the problems may actually be traced back to more behavioral and educational issues.


“More affluent people in Budapest have a life expectancy similar to that of the Swiss,” states the director general of United St. Istvan and St. Laszlo Hospitals Dr. István Vályi-Nagy. “However, some districts in the city have life expectancies up to 10 years less. One of the reasons for this is that these people do not take any responsibility for themselves, some can be quite ignorant, and many do not take any preventative actions. There are a lot of older people who lead most of their active lives in the communist system, and many are not in good condition health-wise. Many smoke and drink too much, eat fatty foods, and because of this they have multiple major problems all at the same time,” he portrays.


The boilerplate definition of health literacy has been generally understood as the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. The internationally validated European Health Literacy Survey, which was first commissioned by a consortium of several universities and research institutes across Europe called HLS-EU, was recently conducted in Hungary to effectively gauge the population’s overall competence level in different subjects related to personal health and wellbeing. Based on a representative sample of 1,008 people, this study was investigated by Szinapszis Market Research and Consulting, and sponsored by the Association of Innovative Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (AIPM), and concluded that 43 percent of Hungarian citizens have difficulties in interpreting and evaluating medical information related to their health. This yielded a cumulative index that ranks near the bottom of the 8 other European countries surveyed, alongside Austria, Spain, and lastly Bulgaria.


Essentially, this means that almost 1 out of every 2 Hungarian citizens do not possess the proper foundational knowledge to proactively manage their personal health and pursue preventative action when necessary. As a result, “patients go to the doctors either too late or don’t realize when they benefit from a second opinion,” exclaims the commercial lead of Takeda Nienke Feenstra, further illustrating that “This lack of education and awareness is what ultimately influences patient outcomes.”


The study did not measure the actual knowledge level of each respondent, but four information processing stages—access, understanding, appraise, apply—and corresponding skills and abilities in three health-related domains including healthcare, prevention, and health promotion. Based on the findings, it was determined that people suffering from chronic diseases in Hungary had a significantly lower average score than the social average. Those who need to understand medically relevant information are actually the most susceptible to poor health comprehension, according to the AIPM.


From the perspective of IBSA’s country director, “Because of the historical relationship between doctors and patients in Hungary, the level of participation from the patient is extremely low. This habit is difficult to break, but patients must take the initiative to improve their own health.” She also believes that “it is an obligation of the pharmaceutical companies to work to increase health literacy rates.”


Taking the initiative one step further, Mylan’s country manager Tamas Uri emphasizes that “Improving health literacy must be a project where all stakeholders are involved.” He goes on further to argue for “a platform where patients can get information about issues as simple as health terminologies and patient rights.


“The state, industry, healthcare providers, associations, the entire system needs to be involved. We need to find a common platform where we can be continually connected and communicating with the population. Pharmaceutical companies also serve a pivotal role in this because they have the resources, not simply material ones, but also the experience and knowledge from other countries which can be useful in Hungary as well,” attests Uri


Strikingly enough, “The Hungarian results fit excellently to the international data series, and have revealed similar problems to those that many countries of the European Union struggle with: The society is clearly splitting into a group that is acceptably or even excellently navigating and actively orientating, and a group of laggards who are facing serious challenges regarding health literacy,” delineates the consultancy that compiled the study, Szinapszis.


Improving the average level of health comprehension may not serve as a be-all, end-all solution for a better healthcare system, but most, if not all, stakeholders can agree that it’s certainly a positive step forward. “Improving patients’ understanding of preventative care, treatment options, and basic health financing can only serve to benefit both sides—implementing cost-savings and efficiencies across the entire system,” proclaims the country manager of Berlin-Chemie Dr. Péter Oláh.