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Bridging the Health Literacy Gap

Health Literacy for Better Public Health

Select Month: April 2011

Stories from the field: The National Action Plan in action

Categories: National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy

This week on the LINCS health literacy listserv (free to join), Julie McKinney, the list moderator, and Michael Villaire, the Institute for Healthcare Advancement, are hosting an online  storytelling event. They invited organizations using goals and strategies from the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy to share stories of how the plan helped them in their work.  You can read the stories on the listserv web page.

I asked Michele Erikson and Dr. Paul Smith of Wisconsin Literacyif I could share their story (I have edited it for length and clarity. You can read the original post on the listserv web page.) Michele and Paul’s story conveys the power of individual and group action coupled with an agenda for change. See if you can identify how the Action Plan goals and strategies have influenced their work.  

A Health Literacy Story from Wisconsin

Once upon a time there was a doctor in Madison, Wisconsin who didn’t understand why his patients weren’t following his instructions. “Hmm….” he wondered, “could something else be going on here, or am I just not communicating well?” 

He thought low reading skills might be a factor. After finding literacy data, he was shocked! 

“How could a problem THIS BIG happen and I didn’t even know about it?!!” he exclaimed.

He did an Internet search on “Literacy in Wisconsin” and found a small, statewide literacy organization.  He asked to join the board of directors.  Within a year he and the director organized the first Wisconsin Health Literacy Summit, uniting about 40 literacy and health care providers to discuss how they could work together to make health information understandable for everybody.

The doctor developed a moving PowerPoint presentation, including patient stories and suggestions to address health literacy.  He shared it with every health and education organization that would allow him. Like Johnny Appleseed, he planted health literacy seeds everywhere he went.  It wasn’t long before a buzz began and many requests came in for him to present all over the state and beyond. 

There was so much demand, the literacy organization director and the doctor held a second Health Literacy Summit and created a statewide grassroots effort involving volunteers in health care and literacy from all four corners of the state. Soon, the state literacy organization and its committees were sharing health literacy practices in their health care organizations and training literacy tutors in health literacy practices and health curricula resources for adult learners.

 They developed partnerships and shared information with initiatives in other states. The literacy organization developed a new website dedicated to sharing health literacy information and hired its first health literacy coordinator to plan and evaluate health literacy efforts.

Long story short, a third and fourth Wisconsin Health Literacy Summit allowed evidence-based health literacy practices and interventions to be shared with everyone. New partnerships were formed, and actionable interventions and tools were shared. Other states began to develop their own health literacy plans thanks to the CDC Action Plan workbook.

Thank you Michele and Paul for this story. Even though most stories eventually have an end, the health literacy improvement story continues. What is your story with the National Action Plan?

Limited Health Literacy and Public Health Practice

Categories: Public health practice

If you work in public health, you probably have experience with the impact of limited health literacy on your everyday work. Public health communicators are responsible for getting out vital information.  This information is often technical or unfamiliar to the public at large and to specific groups affected by a public health threat. We may rely on other government agencies, community groups, schools, the media – traditional and social media – and partner organizations to help us reach as broadly as possible into the community.

Limited health literacy, however, affects more than communication. It affects how we design, implement and assess public health programs, conduct outbreak investigations, respond to public health emergencies, and monitor and track health conditions in communities.

When we

  • provide screening services that require people to fill out forms they don’t understand,
  • ask residents questions about community conditions that don’t make sense to them, or
  • provide jargon-filled information about a public health threat that doesn’t provide a clear action step to lower the threat

we’ve missed an opportunity to improve public health.     

The National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy includes goals and strategies that any public health organization can use to improve its own practices and identify local partners to help connect with the community. Adult literacy service providers, librarians, social service agencies, such as those that meet the needs of homebound elders, and visiting nurse associations are examples of non-traditional partners that reach people in everyday life.

If you work in public health, please share your experiences with us about the role limited health literacy plays in the work of your organization and how you are improving health literacy. 

If you work in public health, who outside of public health would you like to partner with on limited health literacy? What do you need to make these partnerships happen?

Welcome to CDC’s Health Literacy Blog

Categories: Partnerships


Welcome to the first post on CDC’s new health literacy blog. The purpose of the blog is to stimulate ideas for new work in public health and health literacy, build relationships and community, and discuss our successes and challenges in real time.   

Improving health literacy depends on the support and actions of many organizations working at all levels of society. CDC’s Office of the Associate Director for Communication (OADC) recognizes CDC can play a major role in raising awareness, disseminating information and leading by example in health literacy practice. The U.S. Government's Official Web PortalDepartment of Health and Human Services
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention   1600 Clifton Road Atlanta, GA 30329-4027, USA
800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) TTY: (888) 232-6348 - Contact CDC–INFO
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