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Talk to Me:
Improving Health Literacy through Communication

Transcript: WOSU reporter Christina Morgan discusses the Health Literacy Project

Communication in its simplest form is tricky. It becomes trickier when someone tries to communicate across what might be called hurdles but are really the differences that make us the wonderfully diverse people we are. Those hurdles or differences include gender, culture, profession, and age.

Many of these hurdles are encountered several times every day in the doctor’s office. Health-care providers in general face time constraints, and limited time is another hurdle that must be cleared before clear communication is possible. Another possible hurdle has to do with the health of the patient: We typically go to the doctor when we don’t feel well, so we’re just not at our best.

What can be done to improve communication? That question prompted the formation of a project titled “Improving Health Literacy Through Communication.” The project is a partnership of WOSU Public Media, the Central Ohio Agency on Aging, and WOSU Caregivers host and former director of the Ohio Department of Aging Judith Brachman.

Through focus groups, questionnaires, and individual interviews, we’ve heard from older Columbus-area residents and caregivers, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and mental health care providers—and we’ve gotten an earful.

We’ve heard doctors say they want patients to ask question—lots of questions. And they want patients to be partners with them in finding the best resolution to whatever the ailment or issue might be. Patients are encouraged to bring a friend of a family member to help listen and take notes during a doctor’s office visit. Doctors also said they want to make sure patients are clear on what’s been discussed before they leave the office. Newark geriatrician Dr. Jonathan Hollister puts it this way: “When we go to medical school, we all speak English. But when you come out, you speak some weird variant of Latin.” Dr. Hollister encourages older patients and caregivers who are unclear about what the doctor is saying to just ask, “Would you put it in English?”

The Health Literacy Partnership heard from one pharmacist who said she preferred a non-pharmaceutical way to deal with her own health problems. Registered Pharmacist Erika Ragaji ate oatmeal rather than take a prescription medication for a slightly elevated cholesterol level. It worked, she told us. Pharmacists, of course, are the ones who know they drugs they dispense—and the side effects.

The Health Literacy Partnership listened to Central Ohio residents in their 60s, 70s, and 80s describe what they expected from a physician—and what they do when those expectations are unmet.

When a retired nurse’s doctor explained that the medication he was giving her would cause severe diarrhea for a few days, she pointed out the possible seriousness of diarrhea, including dehydration. And she said, “We’ll find something else, OK?” And they did.

Analysis of all the data gathered by the Health Literacy Partnership revealed several key points that are essential to solid communication among health care providers, older patients, and caregivers. The partnership shared these highlights with Ohio State University assistant professor of theatre Joy Reilly and her group of artists, called Howling at the Moon. All members of Howling at the Moon are over the age of 60. They combined health literacy highlights with some of their own monologues about the experience of growing older. And as Dr. Reilly would say, they gave the Health Literacy Project legs. Howling at the Moon performed at two retirement centers in Columbus. Residents enjoyed the show, and they offered their own suggestions.

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