DOCTORS and nurses should see the identification of a lack of basic skills in their patients as part of their jobs, ministers have said.
Two government departments have come together to launch a programme aimed at improving basic skills and health.
The scheme, Skilled for Health, aims to improve levels of literacy and numeracy as well as link learning to health.
Ivan Lewis, minister for adult learning and skills, said the best way to improve your health was to participate in further and higher education and that the programme was about social justice and hard-edged economic competitiveness.
"I talk about the dignity of self-improvement," he said. "People take that for granted but hundreds of thousands of people have never experienced it in their lives."
He pointed out that 7 million people in the UK have difficulty reading the label on medicine bottles or do not know the dosage needed. And people often hide their lack of skills - by pretending they have forgotten their glasses. They are also more likely to have accidents at work. He said doctors and nurses were crucial part-time workers and should identify skills' needs.
The Department for Education and Skills will join the Department of Health to make joint local appointments, develop materials and run demonstrations in deprived areas. Some of the help will be targeted at NHS staff as 100,000 health workers have basic skills problems.
Mr Lewis said women with these problems were five times more likely to suffer from depression.
Dominic Harrison, associate director of the Health Development Agency in the North-west, said the programme should concentrate on teenage parents and those at risk of social exclusion.
"If the programme is to succeed it will have to give particular attention to intervention with young people - by 21 years old, many of their health and life-chance determinants and those of their children may well have already been significantly put at risk," he said.
It has been found that non-participants in education were twice as likely to experience ill-health. The life expectancy of males in Manchester, where the programme was launched, is 71, compared with an average in England and Wales of nearly 76 years. Mr Harrison said that the gap could be closed by education, including basic skills. The Government aims to improve the basic skills of 750,000 people by 2007, with an initial target to reach 750,000 by 2004.
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