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Volunteers address low health literacy
Provide someone to teach tasks
Health care institutions may be able to borrow an idea from literacy volunteer organizations to improve health literacy among individuals who have low literacy skills and improve their ability to navigate the health care system.
In New Jersey, volunteers are taught to work with individuals, teaching them skills such as reading a thermometer, making a list of important emergency phone numbers, filling out health-related forms, reading medication labels and dosages, practicing dialogues for doctor's visits, and making an appointment.
The program is called "Just What the Doctor Ordered?" and was developed by Elissa Director, MA, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of New Jersey, based in Bridgewater.
In a two-hour training, volunteers learn about health literacy and its impact on the individual and the health care system. They are given real-life materials and instructional strategies they can use to teach health-related topics to adults with limited literacy and/or limited English skills.
The volunteers that work for literacy volunteer organizations in the state of New Jersey initially receive 15 hours of intensive training before they are matched with a student, so they have some background, information, skills and techniques for working with low literate adults. The health literacy workshop is additional training.
During the workshop, the definition of health literacy is reviewed and the impact of low literacy on health is explored. Participants examine their role as a literacy tutor when introducing health literacy topics identifying the literacy skills needed to obtain, understand, evaluate, and use health information.
They then create some activities that enable adult literacy students to build their health literacy skills. Director also gives the workshop participants sample materials written at a low reading level on a variety of topics, such as a description of 911, how to use the emergency department, translations of difficult medical terminology, and samples of healthy lifestyles.
It is important to help people with low literacy learn to navigate the system a little more easily, because a person's literacy level is one of the strongest predictors of health, says Director.
People with low literacy are much more likely to have serious illnesses, they don't take advantage of preventive care, they have longer hospital stays, and they use the emergency department much more often as their primary source of care.
"There is a lot of research that has been done indicating the serious implications of low literacy and its impact on the individual and the health care system," says Director.
The literacy volunteer program is student- centered, so help is given in areas of need. For example, a student's child may have asthma, so volunteers will work to help him or her understand the pamphlets given by the physician. Volunteers also often teach students to fill out medical forms.
Director also created a two-hour workshop for health care professionals. During this workshop, she defines health literacy and discusses what general literacy skills are needed in order to navigate the health care system. These include reading, writing, math, critical thinking skills, communication skills, and the ability to use technology.
The workshop focuses on oral communication, and Director discusses ways to reduce barriers to communicating with low-literacy individuals, such as the use of the teach-back technique to see if patients comprehend what was said, as well as covering only two to three main points when giving information.
Also discussed is the concept of plain language. For example, she tells physicians to explain terms such as cardiologist and avoid using such acronyms as EKG.
"I tell them I am going to teach them a new language, and the language they will leave with at the end of two hours is plain English," says Director.
For more information on "Just What the Doctor Ordered?" contact:
Elissa Director, MA, Executive Director, Literacy Volunteers of New Jersey, 120 Finderne Ave. #15, Bridgewater. NJ 08807. Telephone: (908) 203-4582. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.