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Health information for all Filipinos

Republic Act No. 11223, the Universal Health Care Act, guarantees that every Filipino has the “right to health.” This necessarily includes both the right to be protected from harms resulting from inequities in socioeconomic status, poor health-seeking behavior, and unhealthy environments, as well as the right to pursue not just the absence of disease, but, in the language of the World Health Organization, a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.”

Crucial to these rights is accurate, accessible, and easily understandable health information. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, fake news involving health matters can have dire consequences, from eroding trust in proven interventions like vaccines to engendering the resort to unproven practices, such as the off-label consumption of drugs like ivermectin.

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On the other hand, if people are informed, not just about what they need to do but also why they need to do those things, then they will be empowered to act on their own, for the sake of their health and those of their families.

The Department of Health (DOH) is no stranger to the need to engage the public in matters of health: Many Filipinos still remember the late Juan Flavier’s memorable TV commercials in the 1990s, including the “Yosi Kadiri” campaign that was highly successful in conveying the message that smoking was not just unhealthy but also “uncool.” With his trademark “Let’s DOH it!” battle cry, Flavier managed to make the public feel involved, and even excited, about public health campaigns.

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But since then, much has changed in our information landscape. While many Filipinos still use television, 2 out of 3 have internet access and can search for health information by themselves. Unlike TV where there are only a few channels to choose from, there are thousands of websites that offer health-related information, and there are also “medical influencers” today that have huge social media followings because of the health advice they provide.

This digital age poses new sets of challenges. For one, there is no regulation of the veracity of online content. Thus, we have seen fake news being shared, and unlicensed or unproven products and practices being promoted online. This can put people at risk: Even if these products and practices are harmless, they have the opportunity cost of taking people away from proven treatments.

However, there are also opportunities. The fact that people are actually searching for health information online, as evidenced by readily-accessible data like Google Trends, means there’s an existing demand for online medical knowledge, and that we can actually identify people’s health information needs. In doing so, we can also lead their attention to other useful health knowledge beyond the snippets that are being shared on social media, including by the DOH’s channels.

Toward this end, we are launching the “Healthy Pilipinas” website (healthypilipinas.ph) this month, which we hope to be a continuing collaboration between the DOH and the public health community (email [email protected] for more information). Supported by the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines, the United States Agency for International Development’s ReachHealth, and other partners, the website is envisioned to be a “one-stop shop” for everything that people want to know about health. In the coming months and years, we hope to add more content that will make the site comprehensive, culturally responsive, and interactive, and that will make it a channel to answer the Filipino public’s frequently asked questions about health. Mindful that not all Filipinos have internet access, the website will also contain tool kits that local government units, nonprofit organizations (NPOs), schools, and health practitioners can adapt and disseminate offline.

This is just one example of what we can do to promote the cause of a health-empowered citizenry. Commendably, many health professionals have taken to all sorts of platforms, from Facebook to TikTok, to advance similar goals. Equally laudable have been efforts by NPOs and civil society organizations to engage people directly in schools, workplaces, and local communities, welcoming their questions and concerns and, in doing so, contributing to health-enabling environments.

There is much work to do, but if we all take part in this effort, we can surely move closer to our shared aspiration of health for all Filipinos.

Beverly Lorraine Ho, M.D., M.P.H., is the concurrent director of the Health Promotion Bureau and the Disease Prevention and Control Bureau of the Philippine Department of Health. Gideon Lasco, M.D., Ph.D., is a medical anthropologist, senior lecturer at the University of the Philippines Diliman, and an Inquirer columnist.

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TAGS: health information, right to health, Universal Healthcare Act
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