Spreading the Word: Taking Every Opportunity to Teach Others About Health Literacy

By: Annalisa (ALiesel) and Alyssa (alzimarie)

 On January 19th, we presented our work on health literacy to our classmates in our Jefferson School of Health Professions class OT 560, “Interventions: Environmental Competence.” The focus of this interventions class is to understand the therapy process in terms of the dynamic interaction between the client, their occupations, and their environment, and apply this knowledge in practice by developing client-centered environmental modifications. In our concurrent course, OT 562, “Environmental Competence in Action”, pairs of students conduct an environmental analysis project with a community dwelling client. The OT students make seven visits to the client’s home and collaborate with the client to identify and carry out five adaptations to the environment that will support the client’s health and participation in daily occupations.

For many of us, this is our first time working as an OT consultant interacting with a client, as well as our first time performing a home environmental assessment. Prior to our first visits with our clients, our instructor, Tracey Vause-Earland, MS, OTR/L, prepared a series of classes designed to give us strategies for delivering client-centered, collaborative services. It was in planning these classes that Tracey asked us to present what she believed would be “imperative information” for the class to hear: the facts about health literacy.

Tracey was familiar with our work on health literacy in the virtual world of Second Life® (read about our presentation), and felt strongly that our classmates needed to develop health literacy skills in order to effectively interact with clients. We whole-heartedly agreed. Our research on health literacy has shown us just how critical it is for health professionals to support their clients’ ability to understand and use health information to make health decisions.

We began by showing a youtube clip created by the American Medical Association that contains first person accounts of what it is like to have low health literacy.  It was obvious following the video that we had our classmates’ attention. They expressed shock and amazement that their clients could be experiencing such low health literacy without their awareness.  We discussed what health literacy is and how the healthcare system places demands on individuals to independently manage their health. This creates an environment that is difficult for our clients.  We asked our classmates to brainstorm ways in which occupational therapists could improve clients’ understanding.  We did not anticipate the enthusiastic and thoughtful answers our classmates posed to this question.  They quite literally stole our thunder!  Knowing that our peers were able to apply the small amount of information we had given them and make connections to their interactions with clients was exciting.  The room was abuzz following our presentation. Classmates kept saying, “That was great- thank you. I had never thought about health literacy like that before.”

In the three weeks since delivering our presentation, several classmates have voluntarily approached us to tell us how they have seen applications of health literacy in their own lives, and how their awareness of health literacy has shaped their interactions with their clients One classmate said, “I thought of your presentation over the weekend when I was at the doctor’s office. I had a question I wanted to ask my doctor, but I didn’t know how to phrase it, and I was too scared to bring it up in the end.” Another classmate said, “My OT 562 partner and I recalled what we learned about health literacy in your presentation when we worked with our client for our project this week. When we asked our client what kind of medication he was taking, he said he didn’t know what it was, but he takes it anyway ‘because the doctor tells him to’. He said he usually takes two kinds of medication before breakfast, but he doesn’t know if that’s the correct time of day to take them. He showed us the medications- he’s taking a blood thinner and a laxative, but he didn’t know why. We recognized this as an example of low health literacy!”

Our hope is that we can continue to educate those around us about health literacy: our peers, our professors, our clients, and our future employers and colleagues.  Evidence shows that the health care system is demanding more and more of clients to manage their own health (Smith & Gutman, 2011). This means that health professionals need to become skilled in supporting health literacy in their clients. We have developed a firm belief that health literacy is the future of health care and that it is imperative that we continue to spread the word.

For additional resources and information, visit our wiki.

References:

Smith, D. L., & Gutman, S. A. (2011).  Health literacy in occupational therapy practice and research.  American Journal                                                    of Occupational Therapy, 65, 367-369.  doi: 10.5014/ajot.2011.002139