The start of a new year reminds us to reflect.
But I’d also been thinking about why I do what I do, and why I started Health Communication Partners.
One of my all-time favorite reflective questions is from my mentor, Dr. Susan L. Lytle and her longtime friend and collaborator, Dr. Marilyn Cochran-Smith. It’s so simple, and so cutting:
What are you trying to make happen here, and why?
I love what this question does to me. I’ve recommended it many times, and there’s more where this came from in Cochran-Smith and Lytle’s Inquiry as Stance.
I’ve told some of my backstory in the introductory episode of my podcast series. It starts a handful of years ago. I had finished my doctorate in language, literacy and education at the University of Pennsylvania. I was working at another university and was part of a research team on a project involving patient communication.
Soon, I was knee deep in issues of patient education and health literacy, cultural and linguistic diversity in communication. Issues of access and equity and discrimination. And all against a backdrop of reform.
Though the context had changed, the issues had not. All this was more than familiar to me; it was very much in line with what had been central to my work. Connections between academic research and clinical practice. Between clinical practice and formal (and informal) policy.
But there was more. Providers and I would start talking about those issues, but then we would find ourselves also talking about related problems of practicing in the current climate. Having to do more with less. Feeling deprofessionalized. Being overwhelmed by accountability requirements. Feeling increasingly separated from the reasons that you got into the field to begin with.
Administrators were dealing with patient satisfaction scores, constantly shifting reimbursement rates, digital health initiatives, and the moves to value-based care.
And we talked about what all of these had to do with health communication, patient education, health literacy.
I realize this may sound like a leap. But these issues are tied to one another, and I know this from my work in the education sector.
These connections are what health professionals and I discuss, strategize, act on, and reflect about.
Over the years this has included administrators, providers, intermediaries, clinicians, medical educators, public health professionals. Health systems, private practices, medical schools, professional organizations. Providers who worked in academic medicine and clinics and community health centers. And lately, those who design digital health tools.
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It had never crossed my mind that as a literacy researcher and educator I could be directly impacting the day to day health and well-being of the same children, families and communities I had served my entire career. This inspired and moved me so much, that I chose to cross-over sectors so I could do this work.
At first, I was having some of the same problems talking with doctors as you might have with patients and clients: blank stares. Polite nods. I knew I was not connecting or being as helpful as I wanted to. Among other things, I was still using my own professional jargon. And I was still assuming too much.
Having as few assumptions as possible – and being aware of the ones we have – is a great asset in trying to connect with a community that’s not our own. And I’m aware I’m doing all of this in a field that is not my own. I am not a medical professional, and I will never know what it feels like to be one.
Yet I have to make some assumptions, in order to write to you and for you. I try to keep these to a minimum, question them often, and check them against the stories you share with me. About your practice, your thoughts about yourself as professionals, your doubts and worries about the field, your desire to do more and serve better. There have been many times when I would hear a story from a provider that just knocked me over.
The reality is that I am learning from being a part insider, part outsider, in the health sector. I’m taking careful steps to try to understand, from the perspectives of the health care professionals I interact with, some of the struggles you face when it comes to education and communication, leadership and collaboration, equity and diversity, in a climate of reform.
What am I trying to make happen here, and why?
I am adapting tools and concepts from literacy studies and educational research for use by my clients in health and health care. Why? With the goal of increasing all people’s life chances through equitable access to timely information and resources.
And together, we’ve created structure within the messiness of everyday practice–and taken action. We’ve followed through and executed on ideas. And we’ve kept a spirit of hope and possibility about this work. As one administrator told me, “There’s dialogue like there’s never been before. Health systems are starting to say ‘I get it,’ and make some moves.”
Here on the site, in sharing parts of the stories of the individuals and organizations I’ve collaborated with, I hope I’ve created something tangible that can help you connect with all patients, and have the impact you got into health care to have.
So, what are you trying to make happen where you are–and why?