Helen Osborne: Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud. I’m Helen Osborne, President of Health Literacy Consulting, founder of Health Literacy Month and author of the book Health Literacy from A to Z: Practical Ways to Communicate Your Health Message. I also produce and host this podcast series, Health Literacy Out Loud.
Today’s podcast is unlike all the others. It will be more of a conversation than an interview. I’ll be talking with Michael Villaire, who is President and CEO of The Institute for Healthcare Advancement, or IHA, where he’s worked since 2000.
Michael previously was the managing editor for several peer-reviewed medical and nursing journals. He is co-author of two books on health literacy, as well as several book chapters and dozens of articles.
Michael and I are long-term health literacy colleagues and friends. Our work often intersects. This certainly is the case with Health Literacy Month.
I founded Health Literacy Month in 1999, and I’ve led this initiative on my own for many years. But as it grew bigger and more successful, I looked for partners to help. Happily, Michael and others at IHA are now taking the lead for Health Literacy Month.
In honor of Health Literacy Month’s 20th anniversary, Michael and I decided to share our views about why this initiative started, what has been accomplished and where we see it going in the years ahead.
Welcome to Health Literacy Out Loud, Michael.
Michael Villaire: Thank you very much, Helen. I appreciate your having me.
Helen Osborne: I appreciate our partnership and our conversation about Health Literacy Month.
I know you often ask me how this got started. Is that where you want to start our conversation? What’s up?
Michael Villaire: I would love to hear, and I’m sure everybody else would too, some of the origin of how this actually came up in your mind. Since I started in 2000, this actually started before I got involved in health literacy.
Helen Osborne: It did.
Michael Villaire: What were the origins? How did you come up with the idea for Health Literacy Month?
Helen Osborne: The short version is I started Health Literacy Month for 15 cents. That’s intriguing, right?
Michael Villaire: It sounds like a story is in there.
Helen Osborne: There is more of a story to it.
Back when I was starting my business, which was more than 20 years ago, I joined something, and I’m still a member, a group called the National Speakers Association. It’s wonderful.
At that time, I joined group there was a Mentee Program for people new in their own business. Every month, we had a speaker. One of the speakers talked about how, in her business, she created her own little holiday. It was on self-esteem or something like that.
She said, “I got it into Chase’s Calendar of Events,” with whatever event she created, “and wouldn’t you know I got interviewed by a radio station in the UK on this.”
I’m listening to this and thinking, “That’s cool. I just started something on health literacy. I wouldn’t mind talking to a radio station from somewhere else about this.” It got in my mind like, “Health Literacy Month. That’s an idea.”
Then she told me the way to do it is you fill out this little form for something called Chase’s Calendar of Events. That seemed doable.
At that time, and still now, I am active on the Health Literacy Discussion List, which I know, Michael, you know a lot about and probably our listeners do, too.
At that time, I thought, “Nobody much knows me. It’s kind of arrogant for me to create my own little Health Literacy Month,” so I posted something online and I said something to the order of, “Health Literacy Month. How does that sound to you?”
I figured the reception I would get on that online discussion would either be “boo hiss, who are you?” or total silence.
Even more than 20 years ago, I was stunned that within an hour, I must have gotten 50 emails that said, “Great idea. What are you going to do?” And so started Health Literacy Month.
Now I get to the expense part. I had no idea what I was doing. This was on a whim, hoping I got one interview. That’s it.
My expense part was I now go to the library, because I don’t want to buy Chase’s Calendar of Events. It’s a pretty pricy book.
I go up to the reference section and take out this big, fat book of Chase’s Calendar of Events. At the back of the book is a form to apply to submit an event to get considered to be included in the next edition. It cost me, at the library, 15 cents to make a copy. I did, mailed it in, got accepted and ta-da, Health Literacy Month is born.
Then I got stuck with “Now what?” That’s been a question I’ve been asking for 20 years, like, “Really?”
Michael Villaire: This is a good case of be careful what you ask for.
Helen Osborne: Yes. I had no idea. I did get interviewed by a radio station or two, or 20 or 50. It’s flourished beyond my wildest fantasies.
Michael Villaire: That’s fabulous. Helen, you mentioned about the discussion list playing an important role on the front end there. How has the discussion list played into the success of Health Literacy Month throughout the years?
Helen Osborne: The discussion list, I know that IHA is a part of it. You are now sponsoring or hosting it, or some key way that you’re involved. It wasn’t always that way.
We’ll include the URL on our podcast page for the discussion list.
It’s an online forum. I’ve always found it as a way that like-minded people who somehow know about health literacy, are intrigued by it or have questions can meet and exchange ideas. It’s always been that way. I treasure this. It has been an ongoing resource and support for me. In fact, for a few years I even moderated it.
I found that getting feedback right away was really important. At that time, no one particularly knew each other, so it was a way we could kind of meet.
Through those 50 responses I got, I then created what I called a cyber committee that, together, created Health Literacy Month, decided on the official name of it, what month it would be, how long it would take and what it might include. Somebody even volunteered to host the initial website.
I can’t speak highly enough of that discussion list. It’s a key force.
Now in the ongoing years with Health Literacy Month, maybe not every year, but many years we raise the topic of “Health Literacy Month, which is October, is coming up. What do people want to do? What do you want to know? Let’s share some ideas.”
Michael Villaire: For those people who are unfamiliar with Health Literacy Month, and I’m sure that’s a very small number of people by this time because you’ve been doing this for 20 years and now we’re working with you, what is your short elevator speech about what Health Literacy Month is? What do people do during Health Literacy Month to help spread awareness about health literacy?
Helen Osborne: I think you raised a good point. For one, I see it very much as a grassroots initiative. It’s not my thing. It’s not IHA’s thing. It’s not our thing. Nobody really sets the standards for all this. I see it as grassroots. It emerged from all of us. That is just key in what we do.
What I think Health Literacy Month is has changed over the years. I always see it as a way to raise awareness, awareness about health literacy and the need for understandable health communication.
Who is raising awareness and who we’re trying to spread that word to is growing and changing as more and more people worldwide know about health literacy.
My initial vision is that for those of us doing the work, those of us on that listserv, we could just do it together.
I picked October because it doesn’t have many of those, shall we say, immovable objects of a lot of holidays, religious events and other things going on.
I also picked October because it has a lot of other health events happening that month. Also, in the US at least, it’s right before elections. I thought, “What politician doesn’t want to help make health information more understandable?”
There are a lot of reasons, but indeed October is a myth. We miscommunicate all year long.
Back to your question of who this is for. First, I saw this little concentric circle of those of us doing the work, that if we had one month, we could at least speak with a louder collective voice together and the message would be louder because we’re doing it all at the same time. It doesn’t preclude doing it at other times, but this is a focus point.
Over the years, as more and more people know about health literacy, I see that circle widening to people not just who already know about health literacy but those in the greater healthcare/public health fields.
Then I saw an even bigger circle that, as time has gone on, is reaching out beyond healthcare to business, government and policy. We know no bounds of who could know about health literacy.
That’s how I see it has grown over the years.
Michael Villaire: That’s wonderful. Just the fact that this has been going on and going so strong for 20 years, I think, is testament to the fact that it has staying power and people identify with this notion of a time during the year when we can share what we’re doing and create something new to help raise that awareness.
It’s really about this notion of collaboration and all working together. I know that’s very important for you. It’s very important for me. I love modeling collaboration and seeing people work together.
Just this notion of that time during the year when we can say, “Rather than just thinking about health literacy, let’s stop, really create something, share what we’re doing and really do some outreach.”
Again, back to my example of that small cadre of folks who may not have participated in Health Literacy Month or understand it, is this more talking about things you’ve done, or is it creating something special for the month? How would you explain it to someone?
Helen Osborne: A lot of people contact me one way or the other and just say, “I see it’s going to be Health Literacy Month. What can I do?” My response always is, “You can do anything you want. There is no wrong way of doing Health Literacy Month.” That’s been an ethos or feeling that I feel so strongly about.
You can see other events about all kinds of health-related things that sometimes have a very strong driving central force, like everybody wears red or everybody puts an ice bucket over their head. This is not one of those. There is no wrong way to acknowledge and participate in Health Literacy Month.
I have a booklet here, and we’re going to have a link on the Health Literacy Out Loud website about this free guide that people are welcome to contact me or you about how to get a copy of the Health Literacy Month Handbook. It’s a guide for advocates about what to do.
I have it right in front of me and want to share a few examples of what people can do and open up the world, consistent with that “you do what’s meaningful for you and your audience.”
This chapter in the book is called “Exploring the Range of Possible Events.” I break them out as far as events for professionals, and those are meetings, conferences and things.
Indeed, if you look around, there are an awful lot of health literacy conferences happening in October. I think it’s because of Health Literacy Month.
There are events for professionals and all kinds of ways to do that. There are meetings and less formal get-togethers. Those are fine, too. Meet with people in your community who are like-minded health folks.
People wherever they’re working might put up bulletin boards, posters or displays. A lot of people do contests, quizzes and other interactive, engaging things. In fact, I’ve done that, too.
It can also be a time for initiatives, demonstrations and showing and doing, not just talking about something.
Some people, and I get a kick out this, use this as a kickoff event for awards, launching new programs and other special events.
Also, some people, and more and more lately, are doing online events, be they tweet chats, new websites or all kinds of interactive ways of doing things.
Also, Health Literacy Month is not just for professionals. A lot of groups are doing things for patients and students in the community at large, such as health fairs. Even for the employees, raising awareness about being healthy or Health Literacy Month.
It can be events for the media, too. The media actually, I think, are the largest user of this Chase’s Calendar of Events. If they have a slower cycle and need something going on that might just fill their niche, they come to me.
I was talking about that radio interview. I have been approached so many times from newspapers and magazines, all kinds of ways. The media like these focused types of events.
Those are just some of the examples.
Michael, I’m going to ask you, too. You’ve been involved in Health Literacy Month for a number of years. Have you seen something that we all should know about?
Michael Villaire: Not any one in particular comes to mind, but I think the types of things that really make me happy and excited about health literacy is when somebody says, “This is a great opportunity for us to do some outreach within our community.”
You know there are multiple ways of defining what community is. Is that geographic, the types of people you work with or issues you coalesce around?
It’s that notion of bringing health literacy into the conversation and sharing what it is you are doing. The number one thing is always raising awareness, but then also sharing that passion about what you do. What is important to you? Why is what we’re doing so important?
Helen Osborne: I’m glad you raised that.
Michael Villaire: This is really always about the individual and their ability to understand and use the healthcare system and take care of themselves. It really just, I think, brings it back all full circle to why we’re all involved in this particular area of health literacy.
Helen Osborne: I’m really glad you used that word “passion.” You and I share that. The people who go to the IHA health literacy conferences, the people who read my book, the people that listen to this podcast, we somehow have health literacy deep inside of us and have a passion for it that won’t let go. We might need to know more about what to do and how we can make that happen, but it’s deep inside of us.
I want to talk about your passion and mine a little bit, Michael, and bring it to the present and a little bit forward.
IHA did get involved in Health Literacy Month, and I’m happy to have that partnership because it grew so big worldwide.
You and I have done a lot of talking and thinking about our visions for now and our visions ahead. Do you want to address that a little bit?
Michael Villaire: Sure. Health Literacy Month has been going on for 20 years and, I think, has really embedded itself into the fabric of health literacy. But as with anything, there’s always room to grow and expand. I think the community around health literacy is growing and expanding.
I think what we here at IHA would like to do is continue to collect those stories and share those with other folks.
I think there are two places where this can continue to grow. I know that you have a lot of people participating not only nationally but internationally, and I think that’s an area that is starting to really grow and take greater hold.
I’m involved with this initiative for the International Health Literacy Association, and I think, again, it’s just creating these larger communities. This goes back to your metaphor of the ripple effect and how what we do reaches out to greater and greater concentric circles.
I think bringing in our colleagues and friends internationally, seeing what they’re doing to raise awareness and spread the word about their programs and what they’re doing in raising awareness about health literacy is one area.
Then I think it’s also this notion of getting health literacy and its value really integrated more fully into the healthcare system. There are so many people where we have so much opportunity to improve outcomes, reduce cost and make that experience of healthcare be less traumatic and much more fulfilling by just using some basic health literacy principles.
I think those are a couple of my goals for continuing on and having Health Literacy Month continue to be a very relevant and important event in our community.
Helen Osborne: Thank you. Thank you for articulating those. Those are important goals. There are no goals that aren’t important. What I really feel strongly about is we need to have some goals and a clear vision.
I want to put a semicolon in this conversation about Health Literacy Month and encourage listeners everywhere to help keep creating those ripples of health literacy.
I often talk about Health Literacy Heroes. Michael, you and I have talked about that, too. I just want to leave people with this notion that we can all be health literacy heroes, and I will define what that is.
Health literacy heroes are individuals, departments or organizations who, together, find health literacy problems and act to solve them.
I like to leave audiences and podcasts everywhere with this challenge: How will you be a health literacy hero?
Thank you, Michael, for doing this conversation with me about Health Literacy Month. Thank you for partnering and helping now lead the way on Health Literacy Month, and for all the other ways you are taking the lead on many aspects of health literacy.
Thank you for being a guest on Health Literacy Out Loud.
Michael Villaire: My pleasure. Thank you for everything you do. You are an absolute treasure in this community, and you’re a good friend and colleague. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.
Helen Osborne: Thanks.
As you just heard from this conversation with Michael Villaire, health literacy matters. But making it happen in a meaningful and sustaining way is not always easy.
For help clearly communicating your health message, please look at my book Health Literacy from A to Z. You might be especially interested in Chapters 1, 27 and 42 that have much more information about health literacy, organizational initiatives, and ways to add a dose of zest and pizzazz to your health literacy practice.
You can also contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Health Literacy Out Loud podcasts come out every few weeks. You can get all the episodes automatically for free by subscribing at www.HealthLiteracyOutLoud.com. You can also find us on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio or wherever else you get podcasts.
Please help spread the word about health literacy, Health Literacy Month and Health Literacy Out Loud. Together, let’s tell the whole world why health literacy matters.
Until next time, I’m Helen Osborne.