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The Joint Commission’s Strategies for Addressing Patient Diversity and Low Health Literacy

The Joint Commission (the health care organizations’ accrediting agency formerly known as JCAHO), has launched a public policy initiative to address broad issues that may undermine patient safety and quality of health care. It has published two papers that address important concerns related to patient safety and quality of care: linguistic and cultural diversity of patients; and low health literacy. A recent publication titled Hospitals, Language, and Culture: Snapshot of a Nation. A Report of Findings presents findings from a qualitative study of how 60 hospitals dealt with linguistic and cultural diversity. A white paper, “What did the Doctor Say? Improving Health Literacy to Improve Patient Safety” addresses the problem of health literacy and strategies for meeting patients’ communication needs.

The Joint Commission recognizes that the problems rising from diversity and low health literacy must be resolved through engagement of “multiple publics.” And medical librarians represent one “public” that should be engaged. Yet neither publication specifically mentions librarians, who could play a key role in providing access to information needed to support the strategies suggested in the publication. It appears that librarians may have to advocate for their role.

Fortunately, the MLA’s 2006-2007 priorities include a broad media effort to inform health care administrators of “librarians’ value (ROI) in providing consumer health information and patient education that improves patient safety, welfare and empowerment.” Another MLA priority — research defining the relationship between consumer health information and health information literacy on patient outcomes, safety and health care costs — will provide an “evidence-based” foundation for advocacy. The Joint Commission’s public policy initiative (and the accreditation standards that result from it) could pave the way for collaboration between health care organizations facing the challenges of caring for a diverse patient population and medical librarians who can support their efforts through access to much-needed information.

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