Humanity is healthier than ever – and more able to control and choose its treatments than ever before. The World Health Organisation43 describes health literacy as a cornerstone of health promotion. People are beginning to take advantage of increased access to information; we shop around for healthcare that meets our expectations, with a majority internationally saying they would ask for a second opinion if they had doubts about their doctor’s diagnosis (86%).
The importance of our lifestyles when it comes to our health is clearer to us than ever – a majority globally say that the most important thing they can do for their health is to eat well (80%) – despite more of us dying from obesity-related conditions than ever.
In a world where we have access to more and more information, we still face challenges in using that information. The Global Trends survey highlights how confused people are – 80% say they don’t know who to trust.
Health in our hands
There’s a mixed picture in terms of how empowered the world’s population feels when it comes to their health. Globally, more of us are looking for control when it comes to making decisions about our health (77%), and this is strongly linked to perceived quality of the healthcare available; countries that are most positive about their healthcare are least likely to want more control over their health. For example, Belgians rate their healthcare most highly (70%) and are least likely to want more control (62%), in Poland 11% say their healthcare is good but 85% want more control.
This pattern is also evident in Great Britain: satisfaction with healthcare is among the highest globally, and this comes with an implicit level of trust in our doctors. Fewer of us than the global average want more control over our choices (68%), and we are among the least likely to say we would look for a second opinion if we doubted our doctor’s diagnosis (81%). But with the Ipsos MORI Issues Index showing the highest levels of concern about the NHS in over a decade, with 45% seeing it as the biggest issue facing Britain today, there are signs of pessimism – almost half expect the quality of our healthcare to decline in the coming years (47%), the highest level globally – and yet we are comparatively passive when it comes to our own health.
Overall, as Simon Atkinson discusses in The Optimism Divide, there is a big divergence between developing countries like Brazil, India and Indonesia, and Europe on the future of healthcare. Is a hallmark of a good health service that it empowers its patients, or do people only take things into their own hands when they aren’t satisfied? For example, only 16% of Russians rate their healthcare as good, and fewer than average (64%) say it’s best to follow a doctor’s advice. While this appears to paint a picture of people taking responsibility for their health when they feel their needs aren’t met, it isn’t so clear cut in countries such as Peru – another country with low levels of satisfaction with healthcare – where 83% feel it’s always best to follow the doctor’s advice.
Knowledge is power?
In this context, what does greater empowerment mean for countries with differing views on the role individuals should play in their health?
We are increasingly equipped with information to manage our health; globally, a majority feel they can find the right information to make their own decisions and choices about their health (65%). This ranges from 43% (Japan) to 87% (Indonesia), and the more clued-up we are, the healthier we feel – more than twice as many in Indonesia (88%) say their health is good as in Japan (40%). Perhaps this is unsurprising; this link chimes with the WHO’s assertion of the importance of health literacy when it comes to health promotion.
But for others, perhaps ignorance is bliss; three in five globally (61%) say they always look up information about their health, but this falls to 34% in Spain, where nine in ten (87%) say it’s best to follow the doctor’s advice. In her article on Connected Health overleaf, Reena Sangar describes the “seismic shift” in the way people access information about their own health. But in spite of a race for ’big data’, and the burgeoning market for connected health devices, just over one in ten (12%) are current users of a health device – the same as the proportion saying they used to use one, but don’t now. At present the relative complexity of using current wearables is deterring many people who experience them, and cost is deterring some non-users (27%).
So what defines a good health service? Is it about empowering patients to participate in their own healthcare, or is it one that can be relied on to know what’s best? In India, the connected citizens in our surveys have high levels of satisfaction with healthcare (69%), and good self-reported health (78%) – but unlike similar countries, their appetite for information (79%) and control (86%) remains high. France’s health system is considered one of the best in the world, but its population ranks among the lowest for having access to information to help them make healthy decisions (48%).
In spite of evidence of increasing control over their health, people harbour inevitable anxieties about the future; the majority say they worry more about their health as they get older (75%). In Japan, there are lower than average levels of long-term conditions, but the Japanese consider their health to be among the poorest (40%), as in our last Global Trends study. The Japanese are also dissatisfied with their health service, but in the context of their lower than average desire for control over their health (66%), empowering them more may not be the answer to their worries – they are in fact relatively healthy.
It’s clear that the way we participate in our own health is changing, but there’s no one size fits all solution. There are clear cultural differences in how populations of different countries approach their own health, and local health services will need to employ different strategies in the future to keep anxieties at bay, and harness appetites for control and information about health to meet their populations’ needs.