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National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy – Improving Health and Quality of Life in Communities

The Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recently released a key report titled the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy. The publication is a call to action for “organizations, professionals, policymakers, communities, individuals, and families” to join together in a national response to the problems stemming from low health literacy.

The report is notable in many areas. The report begins with an introduction about health information in the lives of ordinary people and the decisions and actions that must be taken on a daily basis. Even seemingly simple tasks can be difficult, such as choosing the correct over-the-counter cold medicine for a child, or reading the label on a prescription bottle. The report notes that “nearly 9 out of 10 adults have difficulty using the everyday health information that is routinely available in our health care facilities, retail outlets, media, and communities.” A thorough definition of health literacy follows, including the correlation between literacy and health literacy.

The second section of the report compiles data and statistics which identify disturbing scenarios related to limited health literacy and numeracy skills. Research points to a clear association between limited health literacy and poor health outcomes and health disparities. Some of the findings indicate that limited health literacy affects the use of preventive services, medication errors, unnecessary emergency room visits, not to mention the psychological cost – many patients report a sense of shame that they cannot read or understand the information provided by the health care professional. The report then segues to new approaches and evidence-based strategies that hold promise in improving health literacy, such as simplifying written materials, using videos or other media to deliver health education, and improving patient-provider communication.

The Action Plan states seven goals to improve health literacy, including strategies, examples, and commentary on the “who, what, and how” is needed to achieve the goals. The goals are well-developed, utilizing a multi-faceted approach to solving the issues of health literacy.

The goals are to:

  1. Develop and disseminate health and safety information that is accurate, accessible, and actionable,
  2. Promote changes in the health care system that improve health information, communication, informed decisionmaking, and access to health services,
  3. Incorporate accurate, standards-based, and developmentally appropriate health and science information and curricula in child care and education through the university level,
  4. Support and expand local efforts to provide adult education, English language instruction, and culturally and linguistically appropriate health information services in the community,
  5. Build partnerships, develop guidance, and change policies,
  6. Increase basic research and the development, implementation, and evaluation of practices and interventions to improve health literacy, and
  7. Increase the dissemination and use of evidence-based health literacy practices and interventions.

We were pleased to discover the recognition of librarians and the roles that libraries can play in the Action Plan. Repeatedly, libraries are mentioned in the report – public libraries as knowledgeable resources for patrons and as potential partners in communities, medical libraries as resources for health providers and patients, and school libraries as partners in creating healthy school populations.

The report identifies strategies for organizations to utilize libraries in the development of health-literate communities. For example, Goal 4 states “libraries of all types, including public and medical libraries, have become important partners in supporting community-based health literacy efforts and working with health care professional … However, library staff members, like health professionals and health providers, require additional training so they can respond appropriately to the health literacy needs of library patrons.” Several strategies are offered, such as skill-building in health reference services, creating health-related programs, and forming partnerships between community organizations, health professionals and libraries.

A special mention is made about the partnership between Santa Clara Medical Center, Santa Clara County Library, and Plane Tree Health Library from San Jose; the three organizations work together to operate a community learning center for improving health literacy. The learning center provides information about medical topics in several languages (English, Spanish and Vietnamese) and different formats (print, audio, and video) with a focus on easy-to read materials. Each organization offers something unique to the partnership, and the result is improved literacy for the diverse populations in the community.

Not only is the introductory material a good primer on health literacy, the Action Plan identifies the problems along with concrete strategies for creating a more health-literate nation. For anyone interested in new approaches for working individually and in partnerships to improve the health and quality of life of people in their communities, the entire document is worth reading and is highly recommended.

To listen to a podcast about the report, visit the NLM Director’s Comments podcasts page. The audio file can be played on your computer, or it can be downloaded through iTunes. Directions are available on the page, and a transcript of the audio is also available.

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