10 years of health literacy: changes and constants in an evolving field

Guest blog from Health Literacy Media Board President Steve Pu, D.O.

Ironically, it all started in Atlanta.


My involvement with the initiative that would become Health Literacy Missouri (and now, Health Literacy Media or HLM) had its origin during dinner with my dear friend Dr. Jim Kimmey. We’d found ourselves in Atlanta to take part in a National Academies roundtable on health disparities.


It might sound strange, it being more than 10 years ago, but I remember that conversation vividly to this day because something Jim said really struck me. The future of healthcare stands on 3 pillars, he said: prevention, workforce development, and health literacy.


At that point I’d been on the board of the Missouri Foundation for Health (MFH)–where Jim was CEO–for several years, amidst a renewed emphasis on meeting community needs by, among other things, serving as a convener: bringing diverse viewpoints in the healthcare community together.


Health literacy was a natural fit in this regard, with its unique perspective that considers the interplay between people, the healthcare system, and providers. We began to see health literacy as a key component in positively impacting population health, particularly in the wake of 2004’s landmark IOM report on health literacy.


In fact, a vision was taking shape at the foundation. We believed that health literacy activities in Missouri could serve as a blueprint for efforts nationwide, and in 2007 MFH funded a series of demonstration projects around the state.


It was also around this time that Dr. Will Ross took the helm of the MFH board. With Will’s leadership, we engaged the community through town hall-style meetings led by our friends at the Regional Health Commission, and reflected on our health literacy efforts to date. It became clear that an organization external to the foundation, and with a sole focus on health literacy, was the way forward.


The foundation brought together a Coordinating Council with representatives from around the state of Missouri to guide the creation of this new organization. The Center for Health Policy at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the St. Louis Collaborative, and the Southwest Missouri Area Health Education Center at Missouri State University provided vital guidance from diverse points of view, including health communication and education, academic and clinical medicine, health policy, journalism, and more.


Thus was born Health Literacy Missouri, a comprehensive, statewide resource center with a mission to:

  • Provide access to healthcare information in plain language

  • Offer educational resources that help health care providers communicate effectively with patients

  • Create systematic change at point of medical care

  • Improve health literacy through education and community engagement

  • Strengthen the evidence base for health literacy

A decade of learning

We knew that with a path-breaking initiative like HLM, there was no real precedent for the organization’s operations. And the first few years were not without some bumps in the road. Part community-based nonprofit, part service provider, and part scientific body, HLM’s focus was, at times, diffuse.


But all along, we knew we had good people.


Between staff who were talented and passionate about health literacy’s promise to improve health, an engaged board, and active community partners, we put our heads down and just did the work that we knew we were capable of.


Internally, we developed a robust infrastructure. We built processes that allowed us to apply the health literacy evidence base to health information of all kinds consistently and efficiently. Externally, we conducted trainings all over the state that built capacity for truly patient-centric healthcare. We helped the healthcare community ensure that its facilities reflected the best thinking in empowering patients as they navigate physical spaces.


And it all paid off. As we have built our portfolio of partners, it became clear that they saw the value that a sound, theory-based approach brings. It seemed they always returned for more work together.


We are so grateful for our many long-term partners who helped shape our direction over the past 10 years. Indeed, this is one thing about HLM that has never changed- the hard work, the focus on evidence, and the belief that excellence in effort delivers excellence in results.


The next 10 years

Frankly, I didn’t think I would be a part of HLM for this long. But being part of something this unique and special is hard to walk away from. And as foundational changes continue to happen at the policy level, such as the transition to a value-based healthcare model, the opportunities for health literacy only seem to grow.


At the same time, we aim to keep our roots in the ground here in our local community. Our commitment to being present in spaces where health literacy can help healthcare meet the needs of people who in the past have been excluded, or have been impacted by health disparities, has never changed.


And so, we’re officially launching our 10 year anniversary this April, looking back on what we’ve learned, looking forward to what comes next, and expressing our gratitude for all the partners and friends we’ve made along the way.


Thank you.


Steve

Steve Pu, D.O., is the president of Health Literacy Media’s board of directors. Dr. Pu currently serves as Director of Physician Relations at NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He remains clinically active with clinics in Kennett and Hayti, Missouri. He also serves as an advisor to administation and board of Pemiscot Memorial Health System. Dr. Pu served on the board of directors for the Missouri Foundation for Health from 2002 to 2008, and as board chair in 2008.


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