Department of Family Medicine Physician Awarded for Work on Health Literacy
MADISON - Almost half of adults in this country have significant problems reading. When Paul Smith, MD, an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine, UW-Madison, came across this statistic in a federal survey, he knew immediately the health care field needed to be proactive in building health literacy.
"The strongest predictor of a person's health status is his or her literacy skills," according to Smith. "People with chronic mental and/or physical health conditions - and minority and immigrant populations - tend to bear more of the consequences from inadequate health literacy. Helping to address this problem is one of my highest priorities."
Smith began a campaign to educate Wisconsin's health care community about the many barriers faced by adults with low literacy skills. In partnership with Wisconsin Literacy, Smith hosts training sessions and organizes regional and statewide Health Literacy Summits.
"It's not simply a matter of reading level," says Smith. "It's how our health care system presents information. We need to think about communication from the patient's point of view."
Consequently, Smith encourages health care workers to learn how to better communicate with patients, whether it's through conversation or written materials.
"Clear communication is important for all patients, not just those with lower reading skills," says Smith. "Take the highly-educated neurosurgeon in labor who is sleep deprived and has been on pain medication for 24 hours. When she talks to her obstetrician about her baby's birth, she might have trouble understanding the issues and making decisions."
Health care workers are not the only ones with influence. Dr. Smith encourages every one to "talk about this issue to your doctor, your neighbor, and your co-workers. When people are aware of the problem, they'll help support the best solutions."
"And if you really want to change someone's life, be a tutor," encourages Smith. "Being a tutor has such a huge impact on people, and there are waiting lists at most of the literacy organizations across the state."
On Wednesday, September 23, Dr. Smith will be awarded the Sally Sunde Family Advocate Award for his work promoting health literacy. This distinguished award is being presented by Community Shares of Wisconsin at its annual event, held at the Monona Terrace from 5-7:30pm. The awards program will start at 6pm and all are invited to attend. There is a suggested contribution of $35 and RSVPs (pdf) are requested no later than Thursday, September 17.
Date Published: 09/17/2009