by Terri Ottosen, Outreach and Education Coordinator, NN/LM, SEA
Many of us following information on health literacy, with an interest in keeping current and apprised of new developments, have noticed more discussion recently of the idea of community health literacy. In one discussion, someone described it as “a collective capacity to support each other in finding health information, making sense of it, talking it through and finding ways to take action – either as a community or by supporting individuals to get the help or make changes they need.” She went on to describe that this concept is the “potential for people with higher health literacy skills to lift up those in their community with lower skills.”
The concept of community health literacy is often referred to public health literacy in the literature. One paper by D. Freedman, “Public Health Literacy Defined,” in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2009, describes health literacy as “a comprehensive model comprised of two distinct components, individual health literacy and public health literacy” with the latter defined as “the degree to which individuals and groups can obtain, process, understand, evaluate, and act on information needed to make public health decisions that benefit the community. (http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(09)00092-0/abstract)
This idea is exciting for librarians because that is exactly what we do. No matter your institution, librarians can and do help support individuals and organizations, find, utilize and evaluate health information to help them get the help and answers they need to make the changes needed or the information needed to make informed health decisions. For those working with groups or individuals, there are tools and resources to help you learn more about the concept as well as ways to help focus your efforts. This can be far more challenging than focusing efforts on individuals because it’s more about assessing the entire community’s needs and targeting efforts to “lift” the health literacy levels of a geographic area or distinct territory, which could include a hospital, neighborhood, residents, etc.
Lydia Witman, Patient & Family Library Manager, at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library at the University of Virginia Medical Center, posed a question recently on IHA Health Literacy List, about assessment tools that could be applied at the population/community level, so that the outcome of the assessment would help users be able to find the percentage of health literacy levels in a given community. One response from a leader on the list included a link to the Health Literacy Data Map (http://healthliteracymap.unc.edu), which identifies sub-communities with the biggest health literacy challenges. It is based on the prevalence of the key demographic groups identified in the NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy), which is often cited in health literacy literature as the standard data set, as having the lowest health literacy levels. If you’ve not seen this tool, please check it out. According to the “About” section of the website, it provides an “interactive, searchable, national map of health literacy estimates for 216,864 census block groups in the United States.” The development and maintenance of the site was funded by the National Institute on Aging and is a collaboration between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Boston University Medical Center, Northwestern University, RAND Corporation, and the University of Michigan.
Here are some additional sources of further information on public health literacy and community health literacy:
Health Literacy for Public Health Professionals (Centers for Disease Control) – Web-based training program to educate health professionals about public health literacy and their role in providing health information and services and promoting public health literacy.
Health literacy and public health: A systematic review and integration of definitions and models (BioMed Central, BMC Public Health)
Working with Libraries, Schools & Community Organizations – Resources to help begin or expand your educational and community health literacy activities. The site includes curricula, links to research, and more. (Centers for Disease Control)
Examining health literacy disparities in the United States: a third look at the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) – Article on the importance of relational social status for understanding health literacy disparities in the United States. (BioMed Central, BMC Public Health)
Health Literacy and Health Literacy Resources (NN/LM) – Provides background information on health literacy and resources from trusted organizations.