Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Atta Annan said, “Literacy unlocks the door to learning throughout life, is essential to development and health, and opens the way for democratic participation and active citizenship.”

Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Everyone recognizes October as the month of Halloween celebrations. However, many may not be aware that it’s also Health Literacy Month, a very admirable campaign to promote participatory, empowering platforms of crucial health-related communications that advance personal and community-wide public health.

Health Literacy Month was founded in 1999 by health communication expert Helen Osborne as a way for organizations and the general public to spread awareness of the critical need for patients to more easily understand health information and guidance that health care providers, like The Wright Center for Community Health, are providing to them.

Of course, because of the ongoing, serious health risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, now more than ever we need everyone engaged in enhancing global understanding of key issues related to symptoms and spread of the virus, as well as the importance of incidence and prevalence awareness, masking, hand hygiene, social distancing, testing, contact tracing and quarantining. We need continuous communication and understanding of currently available and emerging treatment options and availability of a vaccine.

In short, this public awareness and advocacy requires health literacy, meaning all patients can fully process, analyze, evaluate and apply the abundance of information that they are receiving.

According to the Institute for Healthcare Advancement, which oversees Health Literacy Month, studies have shown that a large number of patients have significant difficulty reading, comprehending and acting on the health information given to them, often due to the complexity of the information and a lack of clear, plainspoken communication on the part of health care providers.

In addition, basic written literacy skills, language differences, age, hearing impairment and other disabilities, cultural context and emotional responses can also all hinder a patient’s health literacy, in turn negatively affecting engagement in and effectiveness of care delivered, as well as personal and public health outcomes and affordability.

Thankfully, efforts like Health Literacy Month are helping to bridge these gaps. In recent years, the event has actually become a worldwide initiative with numerous health care organizations, government agencies, literacy programs, colleges, professional organizations, businesses, social service organizations and community partnerships hosting, promoting and collaborating on a wide range of health literacy events every October.

As a Federally Qualified Health Center Look-Alike and Essential Community Provider of primary health services, The Wright Center for Community Health is passionately committed to providing exceptional, integrated primary health services to our diverse patient population throughout Northeast Pennsylvania. That mission requires attention to health literacy and ensuring patients are given and understand relevant health information and the tools they need to become their own best health advocates.

And as the nation’s largest Graduate Medical Education Safety-Net Consortium, The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education also serves as an essential community provider of physician and interprofessional health workforce renewal. We must ensure we teach the importance of health literacy — and the skill sets to promote it — with every patient encounter to the 200+ physicians and over 200 interprofessional health students from our regional academic institutions that we train annually.

For us, that means spending as much time as needed with patients and their families, and delivering information to them with clarity, purpose and, perhaps most importantly, empathy. We must demonstrate good listening, appreciative inquiry and use a technique called “teach back” to validate that patients and families truly understand the information and guidance we provide them.

This requires actively and patiently listening to and addressing all of their questions and concerns and carefully guiding them through their options utilizing a process called “shared decision-making.” It’s a two-way dialogue that ensures our patients are better informed and more empowered to make informed choices that are in the best interests of their health and also meaningful contributions to their care plans.

The current theme of Health Literacy Month is “Be a Health Literacy Hero,” with the Institute for Healthcare Advancement spotlighting individuals and groups who are making significant contributions to promote the cause of health literacy.

We can all do our part to be health literacy heroes in a variety of ways, according to the Institute. Suggested initiatives for businesses and organizations include educational workshops for staff and the general public; health literacy fairs and the publication of health literacy newsletters; and sponsoring wellness programs for our employees.

Knowledge is empowering and should be shared. That’s why The Wright Center for Community Health and The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education wholeheartedly support initiatives like Health Literacy Month.

For more information on Health Literacy Month, visit healthliteracymonth.org.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as CEO and serves as President of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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