Health Literacy at POTA

By: Alyssa (Alzimarie) and Annalisa (ALiesel)

On September 29, 2012, Annalisa and I had the opportunity to present at the Pennsylvania Occupational Therapy Association (POTA) state conference about health literacy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  This was a phenomenal opportunity to learn new skills, present to a larger audience, and empower others in our profession to work towards a more health literate society.

We spent many hours preparing for this opportunity; debating what information was most important to convey, and how to present it in a meaningful, empowering manner so that occupational therapy practitioners could immediately begin to apply health literacy principles in practice.  We discussed what health literacy is, why it matters to occupational therapists, how we can apply it to our place of work, and how we’ve begun to apply these principles at Thomas Jefferson University.  We also encouraged attendees to participate in Health Literacy Month which occurs throughout October.

About 25 occupational therapy practitioners attended our presentation and the discussion was thrilling!  It was so exciting to see people consider how health literacy was already impacting their practice and share what they were doing to promote health literacy.  We discussed that there are three levels at which we can impact change: the patient level, the provider level, and the systems level.  Change at any of these three levels can have a positive impact on health outcomes.  We learned so much from the experienced OTs in the room as they shared their ideas for change on these levels.

Practitioners shared how challenging it can be to communicate with their clients in a health literate way and also discussed some techniques they use to overcome this difficulty.  They talked about the importance of checking client’s understanding by asking them to demonstrate a new skill.  One practitioner shared that she often involves the patient’s family members in conversations as a way to promote plain language. She explained that some patients find it easier to understand directions when they hear them from a family member who uses familiar words and communication patterns. Another practitioner shared that she uses health literacy principles when providing durable medical equipment. She pointed out that this equipment can be confusing for patients to use unless they have very clear directions. One OT who works in a hand clinic said that she uses the “teach back method” with her patients’ home exercise programs. Before she finishes her treatment sessions, she asks her patients to show her how they will do their exercises at home. She said this helps her see whether or not her instructions were clear. Another OT talked about how she chooses words carefully when talking with patients. She gave the example of the word “flexion.” She explained that even though this word might not seem like jargon, it might not make sense to a patient.

This was a phenomenal learning experience for Annalisa and me.  We learned so much about what goes into applying to present at a conference, preparing a presentation, and giving a presentation in a way that facilitates discussion.  These were new skills that will help us as we move forward in our careers.  I came away exhausted from an intense weekend and weeks of preparation, but am so excited about our next opportunity to present at the American Occupational Therapy Association’s national conference in San Diego, California in April 2013.

We are so grateful to Dr. Susan Toth-Cohen for her support and help walking us through each step of this process.  Her insights and ideas were invaluable.   Thanks also to each participant who came to our presentation and shared your own ideas.  Thank you for your feedback and investment into us as future practitioners who want to provide the best possible care for our patients/clients.

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