Health Literacy Campaign

WHAT IS HEALTH LITERACY?

Health literacy is the ability of individuals to read, understand, and act upon health-related information. It also refers to the capacity of professionals and institutions to communicate effectively so that community members can make informed decisions and take appropriate actions to protect and promote their health.  Health literacy affects people's ability to:

  • Navigate the healthcare system to get needed services, including locating providers and services, filling out forms, and advocating for themselves.
  • Share personal information and engage in dialogue with clinicians.
  • Understand written and oral information given by doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care professionals.
  • Follow directions in taking medications, preparing for a procedure or test, and scheduling appointments.

Low health literacy among individuals is linked to poor health status, limited access to care, late entry into treatment for disease, and higher rates of hospitalization.

THE CAMPAIGN

Coordinated by the former Mayor’s Office of Adult Education (MOAE) starting in 2007, the NYC Health Literacy Campaign helped adults improve their health literacy skills. MOAE began by researching student and educator interests in the area and learned that students wanted to know more about disease prevention and early detection, nutrition, and physical activity. Teachers wanted their students to have the chance to act upon new knowledge and skills.

Teachers and health care experts worked with MOAE to write model lesson plans. The lessons were designed to teach functional literacy skills such as reading, writing, and math in the context of health-related topics. Lesson plans focused on three themes: prevention and detection, physical activity, and nutrition.  Classes also included a field trip for students to apply the knowledge and skills they learned in the classroom. Afterwards, students reflected on their experiences and practice presenting information to others.

For example, through the campaign’s nutrition lesson plans, students learned to decode nutrition labels, compare healthy and unhealthy options, and make informed choices in the corner grocery.  The model lesson invites students to take a class trip to a bodega or neighborhood grocery store. They practiced reading nutrition labels, choose the healthiest options, and document the types of beverages being sold. Back in the classroom, students and educators discussed their findings. They explored the role of consumer demand in expanding healthy options in their neighborhood. Students can encourage store owners to sell healthier beverages by signing a postcard or writing a letter. Teachers also helped students to set goals to drink healthier beverages.

In the spring of 2008, almost 500 students participated in the Nutrition curriculum. Over half of these students took field trips to their neighborhood bodega or grocery store to search for the availability of healthy beverage options.  Students from the United Bronx Parents program prepared a presentation to share their experiences with the Nutrition lesson (in PDF).  Teachers unanimously agreed that the Nutrition lesson plan was a success in their class and will use it again; read the teachers' voices (in PDF).  Adult learners at two programs were surveyed before and after the lesson about their drinking habits and knowledge of healthy drinks; view the survey results (in PDF).

ONLINE RESOURCES

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Anthony Tassi, former Executive Director of MOAE
“The Emergence of Health Literacy as a Public Policy Priority” (in PDF)

Anthony Tassi, former Executive Director of MOAE, and Fatima Shama, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs
“Health Literate Doctors & Patients” (in PDF)

Harvard School of Public Health
Health Literacy Studies

Institute of Medicine
“Health Literacy: A Prescription to End Confusion”

National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy
Health Literacy Study Circle Guides

National Library of Medicine: Current Bibliographies in Medicine
“Understanding Health Literacy and its Barriers”

The New York Times
“The Importance of Knowing What the Doctor Is Talking About” (in PDF)

U.S. Department of Education
“The Health Literacy of America's Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
“Quick Guide to Health Literacy”

The Washington Post
“A Silent Epidemic” (in PDF)

World Education
Health Literacy Special Collection