"The department has an excellent international reputation in the field of public health" - Interview with Prof. Orkan Okan

Prof. Dr. Orkan Okan, head of the new Assistant Professorship for Health Literacy

Prof. Dr. Orkan Okan has accepted the call of TUM to the new Assistant Professorship for Health Literacy as of November 15, 2021. After his studies (teaching degree) at the University of Duisburg-Essen from 2011 to 2014, he was a Research Associate and postdoctoral researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Health Literacy Research at Bielefeld University since February 2015. Since 2015, he has also been a project leader and researcher in the BMBF research network "Health Literacy in Childhood and Adolescence" (HLCA) and since 2019 project leader in the BMG project "Health Literate Schools" (HeLit-Schools).

In the Corona pandemic, he leads the research project HLS-COVID-19 to study health literacy in populations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (funded by BMBF and BMG and in partnership with Hertie School Berlin, Careum Switzerland and Gesundheit Österreich). In addition, he and colleagues founded the international research network COVID-Health Literacy, in which studies on digital health literacy are conducted in more than 50 countries (in cooperation with the University of Applied Sciences Fulda and the University of Trier).

The educationalist is currently Vice President of the Health Promotion Section of the European Public Health Association (EUPHA), Vice Chair of the Global Working Group on Health Literacy of the International Union for Health Promotion and Education (IUHPE), member of the National Action Plan Health Literacy German, member of the Research Group of the Schools for Health in Europe Foundation, member of the International School Health Network (ISHN), member of the UNESCO Chair Global Health and Education and member of the Policy and Advocacy Board of the International Health Literacy Association (IHLA) as well as co-founder of the Global Alliance for Health Literacy in Schools.

Dear Prof. Okan, what was the decisive factor in your decision to move from the Interdisciplinary Center for Health Literacy Research at Bielefeld University to TUM?

TUM is an excellent university, a university of excellence, and the Department of Sport and Health Sciences has an outstanding international reputation in the field of public health. This global orientation of research and science is essential in today's world. Health literacy research is a relatively new field of research, but has been my area of expertise for many years. The professorship in health literacy is also the first of its kind in Germany and only the third worldwide. These reasons were decisive. Therefore, I did not have to think long about moving here. The pleasure is immense to have received the call, which I am now happy to follow. My interest in working with my new colleagues at the department, as well as the cross-disciplinary cooperation with the TUM School of Education and TUM School of Medicine, but also with the TUM School of Public Policy, also played a role in this.

What is your impression of the Department of Sport and Health Sciences so far?

The department is familiar, friendly and incredibly accommodating and at the same time goal-oriented, highly professional and with a healthy vision regarding public health. I was immediately very well received and feel the synergies that are present here. I already feel very comfortable and the support from all sides is truly sensational - also beyond the department. The first impression is always the most important impression, and this one was outstanding.

What are you most looking forward to with regard to your work at the Department of Sport and Health Sciences?

For me, a great joy lies in the future interdisciplinary work with colleagues in the department who represent a broad portfolio of different schools of thought, disciplines and research traditions. Of course, there is also great pleasure in representing teaching in public health in general and teaching in health literacy in particular, while intensively developing it in the coming years.

On which topics will you primarily conduct research?

The primary focus of the research will, of course, be on health literacy, specifically in childhood and adolescence and especially with reference to schools and education. But there will also be a focus on other target groups. It is as much about developing concepts, approaches and methods as it is about conducting surveys and implementing intervention. However, educational and health policy studies are equally relevant. Currently, a project on health literacy in the school setting is underway with a special focus on organizational or school development. Two international surveys are investigating health literacy among school administrators and digital health literacy among students in Germany. These two studies are being conducted against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and are running in parallel in other countries to allow comparisons between countries. In these projects, universities, professional associations and NGOs, as well as government-related organizations, are acting as partners. This is also the case in a similar international study in German-speaking countries, in which primarily corona-specific health literacy, health behavior and vaccination-related indicators are of interest. In the coming year, studies on digital health literacy will also be added. Health inequalities and life situations represent cross-cutting issues.

In particular, health literacy is also highly relevant in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic - how important is it to make informed health decisions?

Health literacy encompasses the skills that enable people to find, understand and assess health information. Based on this, they can apply this knowledge to make informed decisions and guide their actions and behaviors accordingly. So, in the broadest sense, we are talking about health-related information literacy here. During the COVID-19 pandemic, information is continuously communicated, in government and public health communications, through all analog, media, and digital channels, in family, friend, and peer-to-peer communications at work, and everywhere in leisure time and in public. Information on the topic has been with us every day since the pandemic began. Our studies show that people obtain it in particular via television, radio, print media, the internet or social media. And in order to be able to safely navigate these information worlds and the variety of information they contain, we need health literacy. People can acquire knowledge about COVID-19 through health literacy and use it in life situations. They can understand and implement the rules of conduct (e.g., AHA rules) and make risk assessments. The information and sources that are accessed in this way can be subjected to critical evaluation. Due to the many half-truths and untruths as well as myths and fake news that are increasingly circulating, it is important to be able to subject information to fact checks and recognize misinformation and disinformation. At the same time, we have been experiencing a boundless infodemic - an information epidemic - for the past two years. This is causing a significant increase in the amount of information about COVID-19, both correct and incorrect information. People can use health literacy in everyday life, health promotion, prevention, care, and infection control to protect themselves and others in the current pandemic that is occurring in the digital information age. While health literacy has very often been discussed in the context of non-communicable diseases in recent years, it is now clear that it is also central in the context of communicable diseases.

And one last question: do you do any sports yourself? And if so, what kind?

I ride my bike a lot, I like to go hiking and try to keep fit overall. I used to play soccer in the club and was very fond of basketball, whether indoors or on the concrete courts outdoors.

Thank you very much for the interview!


Prof. Dr. Orkan Okan
Assistant Professorship for Health Literacy
Georg-Brauchle-Ring 60/62
80992 München

e-mail: orkan.okan(at)tum.de


Text/Interview: Romy Schwaiger
Photo: Sarah Jonek (https://jonek-fotografie.de/)