Last week was the 19th Annual Health Literacy Conference hosted by the Institute for Healthcare Advancement. It was virtual, its theme was Health Equity and Disparities in the time of COVID-19, and it was very well organized.
(Missed it? Here’s some recordings!)
On account of the high rate of unemployment across the nation, they made the conference free to attend this year, and encouraged attendees to donate to a list of charities. Two levels of awesome sauce right there.
I’m not affiliated with IHA in any way. I attended the conference, I liked it, and I have some thoughts.
During the 5 days, I saw how people are individually and collectively navigating this tough terrain of communicating about health–during a global pandemic, and with renewed focus on racial inequities. It was nearly overwhelming to think about all the ways health literacy connects to various health professionals’ work.
I saw and heard health professionals being mindful of how we’re using our health literacy knowledge and expertise, and how we’re lending it where it could be helpful. I observed people creating the space for individuals and groups to ask difficult questions.
There was, throughout, a focus on “low” health literacy. This is not new, and I understand some of the reasons for this focus.
But the literacy researcher and educator in me is a little puzzled. When we focus on “low” health literacy, we’re missing quite a lot of the rest of the picture. I think there’s a missed opportunity here to learn more about health literacy in general. This is an important idea to me, and I’ll be writing more about it in coming months.
I want to give a shout-out to the people on the health literacy discussion board as well (also run by the IHA). How could it not be great? It’s a group of people who self-select into a health literacy discussion board! Many of the presenters at the conference are active on this discussion board. I’m on it, and find it helpful and fascinating and thought-provoking. There’s professionals from many different areas of health, who all consider health literacy to be important to what they do. And you should totally join; it’s free (and the facilitator does a great job).
The best part of the conference and discussion board, for me at least, are the stories people share about their work in the field. These stories are often about themselves as practitioners, as well. During the conference, one of multiple standout moments for me was one practitioner sharing the story of creating what seemed to be a robust health campaign. Then there was a twist: when launched, the entire project was publicly accused of being racially insensitive. The practitioner agreed with the critics, and walked us through this turn of events with candor and humility. It was a startling revelation and a brave acknowledgement. I’m still processing this, and several other powerful presentations.
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Health literacy is a large field. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds. But the fact that health literacy is such an interdisciplinary field could be useful at a time like this. Insights from different fields may help us wrap our heads around the problems we’re facing. Like how we see ourselves and others. The differences that make a difference. And the ways health literacy comes into this–whether in face to face, written, multimodal, or digital communication.
In this interdisciplinary spirit, I’m sharing here a graphic I made (based on an article I’d written) about health literacy. It’s been our most popular graphic here at HCP.
And in a way, it’s a contribution from my disciplinary background, which is language, literacy, and education. Because of this background, I tend to notice issues of language, literacy or education, even when they’re not the main focus.
In the graphic, I offer some of what I’ve noticed: loose groupings or distinctions in health literacy–both research and practice–that have emerged in my consulting, educating, reading of the research, and talking with health professionals over the years. These distinctions may be helpful if you’re trying to wrap your head around some of the complexities in the field.
If you want to do something about health literacy, in research or in practice (or both, hey!) this graphic may help you decide where to start. I aim to give you a sense of the field as I see it, so you might see it in a new way.