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Partners for Health Literacy in Skagit Valley

Article by Sue Jacobsen, MLS
Skagit Valley Hospital, Mt. Vernon, WA

The Skagit Valley Health Literacy Project was quickly renamed the GetHELP project for marketing purposes. In this moniker, HELP stands for _H_ealth, _E_ducation, _L_ibrary _P_artnership. GetHELP sought to reach out to the low literate and/or low-income population of health care consumers in Skagit County. The purpose of the project was to improve from a number of different perspectives, the health literacy of this population. Sue Jacobsen, librarian at Skagit Valley Hospital, lead the project. Other partners included public librarians, community college librarians, public health workers and the local senior center.
GetHELP project partners recognized that the lack of health literacy is not just an individual problem but also a social problem. Barriers to a health literate society include: a complex and uncoordinated health system that is characterized by enormous gaps and inconsistencies in health care coverage from both private and public and/or government-contracted insurers; the lack of consistent and coordinated K-12 health education programs; and a relatively undisciplined society that across many socio-economic and cultural divisions, does not take responsibility in adopting optimal health behaviors. These social problems are further compounded by the often misleading information promulgated through the intense marketing by the pharmaceutical and supplement industries, the hype and hope of media generated medical reporting and finally the explosion of health information resources both reliable and unreliable. The financial and time constraints of overburdened health providers both corporately and individually does not permit time for helping patients to navigate the healthcare system effectively nor time for effectively educating patients in healthy lifestyle choices. It is no wonder that a truly health literate public regardless of socio-economic situation has not yet been fully realized.

GetHELP initially sought to address health literacy issues that could be improved by simple education and awareness with a focus on basic health reference and online resources such as MedlinePlus. This initial effort was focused on helping the target population to become savvy finders and users of health information and in becoming users and appreciators of libraries and library services in general. The initial effort thus included training librarians and public health workers in the use of and in the key evaluation means for determining, reliable resources and in informing our target population and those who work directly with them, of the existence and importance of libraries and librarians.

GetHELP trained the public librarians and public library staff at the public libraries and the local community college library in basic health reference and in the use of the most reliable online resources. Six libraries in Skagit County participated, all but one, located in the population-dense Mount Vernon, Burlington and Sedro-Woolley area. It must be noted that there is no county- wide library system yet in existence in Skagit County. The public health department nurses were trained in the use of the best resources and provided a very brief introduction in evaluating health resources. The local Medicaid health services provider, SeaMar and 3 other clinics also were given brief presentations about our project. They agreed to utilize a simple health information pamphlet that directs patients to seek out information at the public libraries and to utilize health information prescription pads.

Through a series of other events both at Skagit Valley Hospital and from collaboration with the Skagit County Community Action Agency (SCCAA), two of the project participants responded to the need for what became known as the /GetHELP //Health Literacy/ program. This is an actual class which is taught to adults of all ages and from all walks of life. The program has been offered at local senior centers, the SCCAA with plans for utilization at even some local medical clinics. The /GetHELP Health Literacy/ curricula was developed from the experiences gained from working with the public librarians, the community college librarian, and the SCCAA as well as additional reading in the area of health literacy. Drawing on this research and experience, the project director identified three issues that could be addressed create the more enticing class desired by Skagit Valley Hospital’s Health Quest program and which could contribute to improved health literacy. These issues were, 1) Personal organization & responsibility in health records (history, medication etc.), 2) Communicating with Health Care Providers (how and what questions to ask), and 3)Finding and Utilizing Reliable Health Resources. Thus, the /GetHELP Health Literacy as /a basic and very doable health literacy program was born.

For more information contact Sue Jacobsen via email at:

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