Gearing up for Health Literacy Month: Q&A with Helen Osborne

October is right around the corner, bringing with it cooler weather, autumn leaves (at least here in New England!) and Health Literacy Month. Fifteen years ago, Health Literacy was a topic still under the radar. Today, we have conferences and courses, a growing body of literature and professional roles dedicated to the subject.

Much of the momentum behind this movement can be traced to Helen Osborne, author of Health Literacy from A to Z, creator of the Health Literacy Out Loud podcast series for healthcare professionals, and founder of Health Literacy Month. Nearing this years Health Literacy Month, I caught up with Helen to learn more about the evolution of this important and fascinating direction in health care.

BC: I’ve heard you referred to as the “mother” of the Health Literacy movement. How do you feel about this title?

HO: Well, you’re actually the first to refer to me that way. I honestly don’t consider myself as the one who “gave birth” to health literacy. If anyone deserves that title, it would be Len and Ceci Doak. Instead, I see myself as an early adopter and advocate. My interest began in December 1995 when I read my first-ever article about health literacy (published in JAMA, by Williams et al). At the time, I was working as an occupational therapist on a psychiatric unit in a community hospital in Boston. I read in the article that more than half of the adults in this country struggle to understand written health information. I looked at my patients. I looked at my handouts. And immediately I knew this was so. I’ve since made it my mission to help figure out ways to communicate health information more clearly.

BC: What is the history behind Health Literacy Month?

HO: Soon after I started my own Health Literacy Consulting business, I joined the New England chapter of the National Speakers Association. In one of our programs, a speaker shared how she started her own “holiday.” I thought that might work for health literacy, too. So without really having a clue what I was getting into, I posted a message to a health literacy listserv asking, “Health Literacy Month. How does that sound to you?” And to my surprise, nearly 50 people replied, saying something like, “Great idea. What are YOU going to do?” And so began Health Literacy Month. That was in 1999. Health Literacy Month has been going strong ever since with local and national awareness-raising efforts taking place in the United States, Canada, overseas, and online.

BC: Why October?

HO: I actually gave this a lot of thought. Since I envisioned Health Literacy Month as open to everyone worldwide, I chose October as it tends to have good weather and not many competing holidays. Also, in the U. S. it is just before elections. My figuring was that politicians would be happy to have photos taken with people doing good deeds — such as with those advocating for clear health communication. And one more reason is that October has a lot of health-related “holidays.” You can find an extensive listing in “Chase’s Calendar of Events.”

BC: What are you planning for this year’s Health Literacy Month?

HO: My biggest news is the publication of the Second Edition of my book, “Health Literacy from A to Z.” You can learn more at http://www.jblearning.com/catalog/9781449600532/. Ever since Health Literacy Month began, the fall has been a very busy time for me and others in health literacy. This year, I have lots and lots of speaking engagements scheduled from mid-September through mid-November. That’s very good, indeed.

BC: Where do you see the field of Health Literacy heading?

HO: The field of health literacy has changed so much in the last 10-15 years. While years ago few people ever heard the term or knew why it mattered, today health literacy is central to many national and international health policies, innovations, and programs. While I’m delighted that the field is finally getting the attention it deserves, I hope that sometime soon there will be consensus as to its scope and definition. To me, that is key in sustaining the health literacy momentum.

Many thanks to Helen for squeezing this Q&A into her busy schedule!

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