By Helen Osborne, M.Ed., OTR/L
President of Health Literacy Consulting
Editor’s Note: Since 1999 when Helen Osborne proposed the idea of Health Literacy Month, hospitals, health centers, literacy programs, libraries, social service agencies, businesses, professional associations, government agencies, consumer alliances, and many other groups have worked alone or in partnerships to create events that focus attention on health literacy and that match their own interests, resources, and community needs. They all have the same goal ― to raise awareness about health literacy issues and to initiate and support programs that make it easier for people o get the health information they need and to take an active role in caring for their own health. On Call has been a supporter of Health Literacy Month since the observance it began.
October is Health Literacy Month, a time when health literacy advocates around the world ― including Curious George and a dedicated group of volunteers in Florida ― promote the importance of making health information understandable. Carol Scoggins is one of those advocates, whose idea for helping kids learn about the health system and where it fits in their own life has blossomed into a year round program.
Scoggins passion for health literacy came out of the blue, so to speak. Her original focus at the Florida Department of Health was osteoporosis, not literacy. Then a series of hurricanes swept across Florida and the person in charge of the state’s Read for Health initiative had other priorities. That is when Scoggins’ boss told her, “Next month is Health Literacy Month. We need you to put something in place.”
But Scoggins didn’t even know what health literacy was. So she went online to search and found several useful sites promoting Health Literacy Month as well as a site for the Health Literacy Studies Program at Harvard’s School of Public Health. She says she learned a lot from these and other sources and took the lessons to heart.
The first thing she did was look at her own osteoporosis brochures. When she did, she was shocked at how high the reading level was. Immediately, she made a commitment to improve them. “If we are not putting our message out at a level our citizens can understand, we’ve missed the ball,” she says.
Then with her new perspective and passion for health literacy, Scoggins started working on the Health Literacy Month event. Scoggins came up with what appeared to be a simple idea ― have volunteers read Curious George Goes to the Hospital to elementary school children around the state. She posted a notice in the employee bulletin asking for volunteers ― expecting to get maybe 50 responses ― and optimistically ordered 500 copies of the Curious George book.
To her surprise, “the fax machine, e-mail, and phone all went crazy” with health department employees, school superintendents, medical directors, school health nurses, and even middle school and high school students volunteering. So Scoggins upped her order to 1,200 copies of the book and only stopped there because she ran out of funding.
The program was named “Health Literacy in the Classroom.” The program was an instant hit. Since it started, more than 900 volunteers have visited over 1,200 classrooms. In all, those 900 volunteers have read to more than 30,000 preschool, kindergarten, and first grade students. They also have given each student a “goodie bag” filled with pencils, stickers, and coloring books showing what doctors, nurses, dentists, technicians, and other health professionals do.
This year for Health Literacy Month, Scoggins has arranged for volunteers to visit kindergarten and first grade classes to read The Berenstain Bears Visit the Doctor. And she has taken advantage of the original program’s success in order to expand it into a program that runs all year long to bring books and health together. Upcoming events include reading Show Me Your Smile: A Visit to the Dentist (a Dora the Explorer book) during February’s Children’s Dental Health Month. She has also scheduled a volunteer reading of The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV during April’s TV Turn Off Week.
Scoggins is rightfully proud of the program’s success and notes that none of the ongoing work would have happened without Health Literacy Month. She is constantly thinking of new ways to help by asking herself and others “What else can we be doing to improve health literacy?”
Since Health Literacy Month began in 1999, events have taken place in 32 U. S. states and four Canadian provinces and on five continents. As the volunteers and students in Florida’s “Health Literacy in the Classroom” program already know, it is by working together that we truly make a difference. This month, I encourage you to join with advocates everywhere in letting the world know why health literacy matters.
Here are some ways to learn more:
- Carol Scoggins is the State Read for Health Coordinator for Florida’s Department of Health. You can reach her by email at Carol_Scoggins@doh.state.fl.us
- The Health Literacy Month Web site includes a searchable database of events, a free downloadable logo, plus other resources including Helen Osborne’s Health Literacy Month Handbook: The Event Planning Guide for Health Literacy Advocates.
- The Health Literacy Studies Web site at Harvard School of Public Health is an excellent starting point to learn about the issues surrounding health literacy.
Helen Osborne, MEd, OTR/L, is president of Health Literacy Consulting. She is the founder of Health Literacy Month, an international observance of the importance of accessible health communication that occurs each October. Helen’s “In Other Words” column appears monthly in On Call.
Editor’s Note — From time to time, On Call publishes personal essays from its readers that offer a personal perspective on what it means to be a healthcare professional. You can submit an essay for consideration by sending an e-mail with the essay attached to email@example.com.